Saturday, June 18, 2011

The June issue Good News Online: Pentecost, Trinity Sunday, General Assembly Communion, Revival in D.C., Retreat at Glastonbury Abbey

Here is a link to the latest monthly online Good News issue from the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship for Pentecost and Trinity Sunday and General Assembly and more this month. Latest news on all the exciting changes and programs for Revival 2012. Feel free to share with others.

Plus here is more on Pentecost Sunday and the liturgical season of Pentecost/Ordinary Time we have entered into, where the accent is on The Spirit moving into and through unexpected people and places...including sermons on progressive interpretations of Pentecost:

On Sunday, June 12 the church celebrated the Day of Pentecost and we entered the long liturgical season of Pentecost, or Ordinary Time. There has been, it seems, a resurgence of interest in the religious observance of Pentecost even among many different UU congregations. Many are coming to see what a powerfully particularly universalist message and story that we have been left in the Second Chapter of Acts. There are elements of our touchstone of continuous revelation, of visions and the ability to prophecy coming to all kinds of people, the affirmation of unity in diversity, and the yearning for a covenanted community focused on meeting real needs in the here and now, inspired by a Transcendent Spirit.

Here are just a few links to sermons and blogposts that delve into the spirit and the story of Pentecost in UU settings."Found in Translation" by Rev. Rob Hardies of All Souls Unitarian Church of Washington, D.C. "Tongues of Fire" by the Rev. Harold E. Babcock at First Religious Society UU of Newburyport, Mass. blogpost on Pentecost Day and Unitarian Universalism by the Rev. Fred Hammond, a UU minister in Mississippi and Alabama.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

UUs Look at The Trinity

Here are some resources used by Pathways UU church in the Dallas Fort Worth area which looked at the new ways to view the Trinity. For Trinity Sunday coming up; see post below. This class is a good lens to see how theology can still engage us, and help us engage the world, and shows how UUs bring a nice wide lens to look at issues of christology.

The Trinity for Unitarians - Week 1, Overview and Method
Rev. Tony Lorenzen


“You might say that unitarianism has become dogmatic for us — the Trinity being something that a "good" UU simply cannot believe in because we are, by default, anti-Trinitarians. I'd suggest instead that UUs celebrate theological liberalism as a method rather than as a set of theological conclusions.” – Chris Walton, Editor UU World (Philocrities).

Biblical Studies – historical critical method and the use of reason become the hallmark of anti-trinitarian theological method, yet many if not most of the Unitarian, Universalist and other “heretics” we encounter will use an “uncritical” approach to scripture in their justification for theological positions, even using “proof-texting” or citing scripture texts uncritically to support their views, well into the 19th century.


Heresy comes from a greek work meaning “to choose.” A heretic is someone who has not given up the right to choose what to think or what to believe. Heresy is measured in juxtaposition to orthodoxy or “right” thinking.

Arianism - from Arius (256-336) north African priest (leader). Believed Christ was of a different essence/nature (ousia) than God. Denied the doctrine of homousias, that Christ is of one being with “the Father” eternally begotten of the father.” Christ is a lesser created being. Jesus is “more than human,” but not one with God from the beginning. This is Channing’s Christ. Does not deal as well with a theology of the holy spirit, but we’ll get that in week four.

Adoptionism – Not the same thing as Arianism. Jesus is born of human parents (Joseph and Mary) and adopted by God as son at his baptism. This is argued by some scholars as being the view of the author of the Gospel of Mark's view and Saint Paul's view. Also seen as the view of many early Jesus communities by some. This is the view of the non-canonical Gospel of Hebrews, Gospel of Ebionites and Gospel of Nazoreans.

Socinianism – named after Laelius Socinus (dies 1562) and his nephew Faustus Socinus (died 1604) Socinians presage the Transcendentalists. Their teaching led to the Rakovian Catechism in Poland (1605). They insist on interpreting scripture with the use of reason. Deny the doctrine of justification and atonement of the cross and reject the idea of hell and see sacraments as only symbols. God can not be completely omniscient and there can not be a pre-existence Logos (or Christ), therefore Jesus is human, although as a divinely appointed mediator (savior), he can be worshipped. The holy spirit is a power of God, not another entity. Socinians refused to bear arms or hold public office.


1. Philocrities - Isaac Newton's anti-Trinitarianism in the news. Sunday, July 29, 2007 -
Discussion on blog post at web site by Chris Walton, editor of UU World Magazine. Blog is now inactive, but Chris keeps the site up as a reference and it’s a great reference for all types of matters and things UU related. This discussion is on the Trinity from a UU perspective. The comments thread is wonderful.

2. Progressive Church Planting - The Welcome Table, a free universalist christian missional community “Trinity Talk”-
Blog of Rev. Ron Robinson, Executive Director of the UU Christian Fellowship.
This entry cites the Philocrities blog and names other resources for UU discussion of the trinity.
3. Park, David B. The Epic of Unitarianism. Beacon Press, Boston,1957. Out of Print.
4. Wintersteen, Prescott B. Christology in American Unitarianism: An Anthology of Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Unitarian Theologians. UU Christian Fellowship, Boston, 1977. Out of Print. Copies still Available from the UUCF.
5. Ballou, Hosea. Ancient History of Universalism. Biblio BazaarReproduction Series. Originally published through Universalist publishing house, Boston, 1872.
6. Borg, Marcus. Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time. Harper Collins: New York, 1994.
7. Gulley, Phillip. If Grace is True. Harper Collins, New York, 2003.
8. The Church Fathers - - an online free library of all the early Christian Church writings.

The Trinity for Unitarians – Part One
Jeff E. Harris
(November, 2010)

The Christian Trinity

Traditional Christian theology asserts that God’s identity can be described as “three persons in one Godhead” (Guthrie, 1994, p. 71).

Christians came to believe that Jesus was God. “The first Christians could not talk about the God if Israel who was their God too without talking about a man named Jesus” (Guthrie, 1994, p. 78).

Christians came to believe that God was also the Holy Spirit who descended on Jesus at his baptism (Luke 3:22) and filled Jesus’ followers after his death on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2-1-4).

“The same God who is God over us as God the Father and Creator, and God with and for us as the incarnate Word and Son, is also God in and among us as God the Holy Spirit” (Guthrie, 1994, p. 80).

“Trinitarian theology ‘assigns’ or ‘attributes’ different works to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit...”
• “When we think about God the Father…we think about God’s work as a powerful Creator, just Ruler, Protector, and Preserver of the world and all living things in it.”
• “When we think about God the Son, we think of God’s loving, self-giving work in Jesus Christ to reconcile, save, and liberate needy, sinful creatures and the created world.”
• “When we think about God the Holy Spirit, we think of God’s work to renew and transform human beings, human communities, and our whole natural environment…” (Guthrie, 1994, p. 85).

It is important to remember that a theology of the Trinity emerged over centuries of reflection and debate. The Christian scriptures only hinted at this view of God. After Jesus’ resurrection, the Gospel of Matthew describes the way Jesus commissioned his disciples with these words, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28: 19, NRSV)

A Trinitarian theology was formalized in the Nicene Creed in 325 CE but, at this time, the role of the Holy Spirit was not clarified. The Nicene Creed was a compromise between debating factions that pleased Emperor Constantine, who wanted a unified theology to unify his empire. Theologically, the Nicene Creed resolved one problem but created another. “Now at Nicaea the Church had opted for the paradox of the Incarnation, despite its apparent incompatibility with monotheism” (Armstrong, 1993, p. 113).

The role of the Holy Spirit was more fully developed by the Cappadocian bishops later in the 4th century: “God had a single essence (ousia) which remained incomprehensible to us—but three expressions (hypostases) which made him known” (Armstrong, 1993, p. 115).

For many Christians, particularly in the Greek and Russian Orthodox churches, “the Trinity only made sense as a mystical or spiritual experience” and these believers find that “the contemplation of the Trinity is an inspiring religious experience” (Armstong, 1993, p. 117).

A Hindu Perspective on Multiple Images of God

Huston Smith suggests that Hinduism uses polytheistic images to imagine God while also remembering that God cannot be imagined.

“Hinduism’s myths, her magnificent symbols, her several hundred images of God, her rituals…are matchmakers whose vocation is to introduce the human heart to what they represent but themselves are not” (Smith, 1991 ,p. 34).

“A symbol such as a multi-armed image, graphically portraying God’s astounding versatility and superhuman might, can epitomize an entire theology” (Smith, 1991, p. 34-35).

Here’s a Hindu prayer that Smith (1991, p. 34) uses to capture the tension between polytheism and monotheism:

O Lord, forgive three sins that are due to my human limitations:
Thou art everywhere, but I worship you here;
Thou art without form, but I worship you in these forms;
Thou needest no praise, yet I offer you these prayers and salutations.
Lord, forgive three sins that are due to my human limitations.

An Early Unitarian Viewpoint

In 1819, William Ellery Channing preached a famous sermon entitled, “Unitarian Christianity”, in which he made the following claims:

“We believe in the doctrine of God's UNITY, or that there is one God, and one only…

“We object to the doctrine of the Trinity, that, whilst acknowledging in words, it subverts in effect, the unity of God.”

“With Jesus, we worship the Father, as the only living and true God. We are astonished, that any man can read the New Testament, and avoid the conviction, that the Father alone is God.”

“Having thus given our views of the unity of God, I proceed in the second place to observe, that we believe in the unity of Jesus Christ. We believe that Jesus is one mind, one soul, one being, as truly one as we are, and equally distinct from the one God. We complain of the doctrine of the Trinity, that, not satisfied with making God three beings, it makes; Jesus Christ two beings, and thus introduces infinite confusion into our conceptions of his character.”
A Contemporary UU view of the Trinity
Rev. Roger Bertschausen preached about the Trinity in April, 2000 at Fox Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, Appleton, WI. Here’s what he said:
“The strong, almost visceral reaction many Unitarian Universalists have to the Trinity sometimes mystifies me. Certainly this strong reaction is grounded in the roots of our faith: Unitarianism was, as its name boldly states, originally a strong reaction to the Trinity. But when I hear a strong UU reaction to the Trinity today--at least a good century or two removed from when the Trinity really mattered to most Unitarians--I'm perplexed. Don't you get it? I wonder. For most main-line Christians at least, the Trinity is a metaphor. It's a metaphor, a symbol. Just like the interdependent web is a metaphor for many of us Unitarian Universalists. The Trinity, like the multitude of Hindu gods, simply acknowledges the complexity of the divine and the need for humans to view the divine from multiple angles. One angle can't completely capture the divine. So often, though, we Unitarian Universalists take the Trinity literally, forgetting that it's a metaphor. When we take the Trinity literally, I think we make exactly the same mistake some fundamentalist Christians make when they take the Trinity literally.”,com_docman/task,doc_download/gid,192/Itemid,127/
One implication of this view is that it suggests that we can deconstruct and reconstruct theology in a way that is most meaningful and helpful for us.
Our Personal Response

How do you see the Trinity?

What do you want to do with the Trinity?
• Affirm it as an essential truth
• Reject it as an outdated doctrine
• Embrace it as a spiritual mystery
• Modify it in a personal way that makes it more useful

Over the next three weeks, we are going to look more closely at three images of God. We will be encouraging you to decide what you want to do with each of these images of God. You will have the opportunity to affirm, reject, embrace, or modify each of these images.

Part Two – God as Loving Parent

• A brief history of monotheism
• The Judeo-Christian Image of God as Father
• Advantages of this Metaphor
• Disadvantages of this Metaphor
• Alternative images – goddess, maya
• How can we modify this image?

Part Three – God’s Incarnation into Humanity

• A brief history of Incarnation Theology
• Other religious perspectives
• Advantages of this metaphor
• Disadvantages of this metaphor
• Alternative images – suffering servant, teacher
• How can we modify this image?

Part Four – God as Indwelling Spirit

• A brief history
• The Spirit in World Religions
• Contemporary Images
• Advantages of this metaphor
• Disadvantages of this metaphor
• Alternative images – emptiness, interbeing
• How can we modify this image?

The Trinity for Unitarians Week 2 – GOD
Rev. Tony Lorenzen

Unitarianism - God is One
The Shema (Dueteronomy 6:4) The Jewish “profession of faith”
Sh'ma Yis'ra'eil Adonai Eloheinu Adonai echad. - Hear, Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.
Excerpts from Samuel Barrett, 1825 – Scriptural Arguments for Unitarianism:
1. 1.Because Jesus Christ is represented by the sacred writers to be as distinct a being from God the Father as one man is distinct from another.
2. 94. Because there are in the New Testament seventeen passages, wherein the Father is styled one or only God, while there is not a single passage in which the Son is so styled.
3. 95. Because there are 320 passages in which the Father is absolutely, and by way of eminence, called God; while there is not one in which the Son is thus called.
4. 96. Because there are 105 passages in which the Father is denominated God, with peculiarly high titles and epithets, whereas the Son is not once denominated.
5. 97. Because there are 90 passages wherein it is declared that all prayers and praises ought to be offered to Him, and that everything ought to be ultimately directed to his honor and glory; while of the Son no such declaration is ever made.
6. 98. Because of 1,300 passages in the New Testament wherein the word God is mentioned, not one necessarily implies the existence of more than one person in the Godhead, or that this one is any other than the Father.
7. 100. Because, in a word, the supremacy of the Father, and the inferiority of the Son, is the simple, unembarrassed, and current doctrine of the Bible; whereas, that of their equality or identity is clothed in mystery, encumbered with difficulties, and dependent, at the best, upon few passages for support.

Michael Servetus (1511-1553) – Burned at the stake by John Calvin in Geneva in 1553 for heresy for his On the Errors of the Trinity (1531). – Servetus is an Arian. His chief argument is with the ousias of the Nicene creed: “And so I admit one person of the Father, another Person of the Son, another Person of the Holy Spirit, three Persons in one Godhead and this is the true Trinity. But I should prefer not to use a word foreign to the scriptures, lest perchance in future the philosophers have occasion to go astray. And I have no controversy with the earlier writers because they employed this word sensibly.” Servetus doesn’t like the Greek ousias, implying God, Jesus and Holy Spirit share one BEING or ESSENCE. This concept is not found in the New Testament.

Francis David (1510-1579) – Transylvanian champion of Unitarianism. Studied for Catholic priesthood then converted to Lutheranism and Calvinism, before becoming Unitarian in theology. Was theologian to King John Sigismund and instrumental in the Diet of Torda (1568), establishing Unitarianism.
“Outside of God there is no other God, neither three, neither four, neither in substance, neither in persons, because the scripture nowhere teaches anything about a triple God.”
However, for David God gives Jesus divinity and Jesus is Christ is begotten by the holy spirit.

Universalism – All are Saved

Universalism is deeply and intimately tied to the idea of trinity, for there used to be a time (and for some it is still true) that if you didn’t believe in the Trinity the “right” way, God (all three parts of it) would damn you to hell forever. Universalism counters this with a God that seeks to save or love everyone and/or does away with the idea of hell. Thus the idea you have of the trinity isn’t as important as the experience you have of God.

“We assert that the Word, who is the Wisdom of God, shall bring together all intelligent creatures, and convert them to his own perfection, through the instrumentality of their free will and of their own exertions.” – Origen 185-254

“In the liberation of all, no one remains a captive.” Didymus, 309-395

“In the present life, God is in all, for his nature is without limits, but is not all in all. But in the coming life, when mortality is at an end and immortality granted, and sin no longer has any place, God will be all in all.” Theodoret the Blessed, 387-458

Since love in him was perfect and since love hates or envies no one, but includes everyone, even though we were all his enemies, surely he would not wish to exclude anyone.” Hans Denk, 1495-1527

“Every man has a measure of true and saving grace” – Robert Barclay, 1648-1690

“Give them not hell, but hope and courage. Preach kindness and the everlasting love of God” – John Murray, 1741-1813

“As to the justice of endless punishment, minds enjoying the liberty of free inquiry could easily detect the diabolical character of such justice as it is the exat opposite of the Divine nature, which is love. Such justice is evidently predicated on the false principle and ungodly practice of rendering evil for evil.” – Hosea Ballou 1771-1852

“Only when we se that we are part of the totality of the planet, not a superior part with special privileges, can we work effectively to bring about an earth restored to wholeness.” – Elizabeth Watson

The Trinity for Unitarians Week 3 – JESUS
Rev. Tony Lorenzen

Jesus - Christology – “Who do UU Say that I am?”

Mark 8:27-30
Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ And they answered him, ‘John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.’ He asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.’ And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

No where does Jesus claim that he IS God.

Stepping Stones to a Human Jesus and today’s liberal or progressive Christianity

Calvinism: John Calvin (1509-1564) French Protestant writes Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536). Calvin’s theology is summarized by TULIP – interestingly, a TULIP is a response to the Arminian challenge. T-total depravity. U-unconditional election, L- limited atonement, I-irresistible grace, P-perseverance of the saints.

Arminianism: Dutch theologian Jacob Arminius (1560-1609) - God calls all people to Himself through Christ, whether or not this call is effectual depends upon the individual’s libertarian free will. Still the doctrine of the atonement, but it Christ on the cross was universal (for everyone) and each person is the decider of salvation based on their free will acceptance of grace and salvation. Channing is an Arminian (and then also a Unitarian). “The Arminians condemned equally the orthodox insistence on creeds and confessions of faith of human origin and the deistic confidence in natural reason unassisted by divine revelation.” – Wintersteen pg. 6

The Orthodox Unitarians: William Ellery Channing (April 7, 1780 – October 2, 1842), Andrews Norton (December 31, 1786-September 18, 1853), Henry Ware, Jr. (April 21, 1794 - September 22, 1843). They are all basically Arians.

“We believe firmly in the divinity of Christ’s mission and office and that he spoke with divine authority...we believe God dwelt in him, manifested himself through him, taught men by him and communicated his spirit…In Christ’s words we hear God speaking, in his miracles we see God acting, and in his character and life we see an unsullied image of God’s purity and love….” HERE IS THE SPLIT WITH THE ORTHODOX…”We say that the son can not be the same being as his own Father; that he, who was sent into the world to save it, cannot be the living God who sent him.”
- William Ellery Channing, “Objections to Unitarian Christianity Considered,” 1819

The Transcendentalists: Ralph Waldo Emerson (May 25, 1803 – April 27, 1882), Theodore Parker (August 24, 1810-May 10, 1860).

“It is hard to see why the great truths of Christianity rest on the personal authority of Jesus more than the axioms of geometry rest on the personal authority of Euclid or Archimedes. The authority of Jesus, as of all teachers, one would naturally think, must rest on the truth of his words, and not their truth on his authority.” - Theodore Parker, The Transient and the Permanent in Christianity, 1841

The Moderns: Clayton Raymond Bowen, William Wallace Fenn, Charles E. Park.

“The resurrection stories in our Gospels are one and all legendary. The earliest faith in his resurrection, which is amply attested for us is in the Letters of Paul, conceived his spirit or personality to have escaped from the underworld of the dead on the third day (which soon came to be taken quite literally) and to have risen into the heavenly life with God. This did not involve any reanimation of the dead body and had no concern whatever with the grave.” - Clayton Raymond Bowen

The Progressive Christians: Marcus Borg, John Shelby Spong, the Jesus Seminar, The Search for the Historical Jesus and Progressive Christianity - “What Manner of Man is This?”

“I began to see Jesus as one whose spirituality-his experiential awareness of Spirit – was foundational for his life. This perception became the vantage point for what I have since come to understand as the key truth about Jesus: that in addition to being deeply involved in the social world of the everyday, he was also grounded in the world of the Spirit.” Marcus Borg – Meeting Jesus Again for the The First Time pg 15

Borg sees Jesus at a “Spirit Person”

God’s Incarnation into Humanity
The Trinity for Unitarians – Part Three
Outline prepared by Jeff E. Harris (2010)

Reflection Questions
• Who was Jesus? What were you taught growing up? What do you believe now?
• Is Jesus similar to or different than other religious founders like Moses, Buddha, or Muhammad?

Christianity – God Becomes Human
• Orthodox Christianity claims that Jesus is the only Son of God, existed in a spiritual form before his human birth, was conceived in a spiritual and not a biological way, and returned to be with God the Father after his death and resurrection.
• Jesus is seen as fully God and fully human. Jesus’ identity as Son of God is unique in history.

A brief history of Incarnation Theology
• The church’s view of Jesus’ grew gradually over time.
• In the earliest Gospel (Mark), when Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter declares, “You are the Messiah” (Mark 8:29).
• When Matthew retells the same story a couple decades later, Peter declares, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16).
• By the time the fourth gospel (John) was written, Jesus was described as the “the Logos” (the word). “The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
• It was not until the council of Nicea (325 A.D.) that a majority of church leaders agreed that Jesus was divine and equal to God the Father. Even then, not everyone agreed. Here is what the Nicene Creed says about Jesus:
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father. Through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.

Other Religious Perspectives
• “In Hinduism, an Avatar means the form of a deity and usually refers to an incarnation of God or His aspects…” Hindus recognize ten primary avatars of Vishnu including Krishna who taught about the nature of the Supreme Being and the different processes of yoga. Some Hindus believe that the Buddha was another avatar of Vishnu. (
• The Bahai faith sees Jesus as one of many Manifestations of God. “Bahá'u'lláh explained that God, the Creator, has intervened and will continue to intervene in human history by means of chosen Messengers. These Messengers, whom Bahá'u'lláh called ‘Manifestations of God ,’ are principally the Founders of the major revealed religions, such as Abraham, Moses, Buddha, Zoroaster, Jesus, Muhammad, and so forth.” (
• Muslims recognize Jesus as an important prophet but firmly reject an incarnation theology and consider the Christian view of Jesus’ divinity as blasphemous. Allah has no son. (Qur’an 18:4-5).
Contemporary Scholarship
• Liberal New Testament scholars believe that Jesus “did not understand himself to be God, or God the Son, incarnate” (Hick, 2005, p. 27).
• Stephen Patterson (1998) described the experience of the earliest Christians: “In this person they had come to know who God is.” “The gospel writers saw in the events surrounding Jesus’ life a significance deep enough to be called ‘Immanuel…God with us.’ (p. 9)
• John Hick suggested that we can understand the incarnation as a metaphor demonstrating “that Jesus was a human being exceptionally open and responsive to the divine presence” (Hick, 2005, p. 105) indicated in these three ways:
o God was acting through him on earth and was in this respect ‘incarnate’ in Jesus
o Jesus ‘incarnated’ the ideal of human life in openness and response to God
o Jesus ‘incarnated’ a love that is a finite reflection of the infinite divine love
• Marcus Borg pointed out that all Christological affirmations are metaphors:
o “Jesus was not literally a door, a vine, a light, or a loaf of bread…
o “Jesus is the Word of God, Wisdom of God, Son of God, lamb of God, light of the world, great High Priest…
o “It is not that one of these is literally true and the rest ‘only’ metaphors. Rather, all are metaphors” (Borg & Wright, 1999, p. 150).
• Exclusive Christological claims about Jesus can be seen as “love language.” “And like all love language, it made spontaneous and abundant use of superlatives and exclusives: ‘You’re the most beautiful person in the world.’ ‘You’re the only one for me.’” (Knitter, 2009, p. 124)
• When Christians claim that Jesus is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14.6) this can be seen as the church’s love language.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Incarnation Theology
• Incarnation theology makes God more tangible. It may be easier to imagine and love God in human form compared to an ineffable divine mystery.
• If Christians follow the only religious leader that is really God, they have an advantage over other religious traditions.
• If Jesus is seen as unique and superior, Christian’s may not be open to spiritual wisdom from other traditions.
• John Hick (2005) pointed out that exclusive claims about the superiority of Christianity have been used to support religious persecution, imperialism, and sexism.

Personal Response – What do you want to do with the idea of incarnation?
• Affirm it as an essential truth
• Reject it as an outdated doctrine
• Embrace it as a spiritual mystery
• Modify it in a personal way that makes it more useful

Borg, M. J. & Wright, N. T. (1999). The meaning of Jesus: Two visions.
Hick, J. (2005). The metaphor of God incarnate: Christology in a pluralistic age (2nd ed.).

God as Father
The Trinity for Unitarians Part Two – Outline prepared by Jeff E. Harris (2010)

Reflection Questions
• What does God look like? When you imagine God, what do you picture in your mind?
• Where do these images of God come from? How have they changed for you over time?

A Brief History of Monotheism
Egypt – A failed attempt to recognize a single deity
• Most ancient religions were polytheistic, worshipping many gods and goddesses, each performing different functions.
• The first attempt to create a monotheistic religion occurred in Egypt during the reign of Amenhoptep IV who became pharaoh in 1379 B.C. “The pharaoh changed his name to Akhenaten (the glorious spirit of Aten) and, in a ‘great Hymn,’ proclaimed Re-Herakhte, whose symbol is Aten, the solar disk, to be the ‘Sole God, like unto whom there is no other!’”(Stark, 2007, p. 157).
• “Re-Herakhte was not just a Supreme God ruling over a pantheon of lesser divinities, but the One God” (Stark, 2007, p. 157). Akhenaten’s theology stressed God’s goodness and his blessings. The new religion did not include a moral code but expected people to be grateful.
• Akhenaten shut down temples that worshipped other gods, put powerful priests out of work, and did away with popular religious festivals and public holidays in a way that “alienated the public as well as the elites” (Stark, 2007, p. 161).
• After Akhenaten’s death, pharaohs restored the old gods and goddesses, temples were rebuilt, and the polytheistic priesthood was restored (Stark, 2007). Monotheism was a failure.
Persia – Dualistic Monotheism
• Zoroaster was a prophet from Persia who may have lived in the sixth Century B.C. He was trained as a priest in the prevailing polytheistic religion but had a vision of Ahura Mazda at about age 30.
• “Having summoned Zoroaster to serve him, Ahura Mazda revealed that there is only One God—that he, Ahura Mazda, is the eternal creator and ruler of the universe” (Stark, 2007, p. 164).
• “Zoroaster’s revelation confronted the problem of evil—God is engaged in a battle with the inferior Angra Mainyu, the ‘Fiendish Spirit’ who causes calamities and leads human into evil” (Stark, 2007, p. 164-167).
• “Many regard dualistic monotheism as the most important contribution made by Zoroastrianism to the evolution of religion” (Stark, 2007, p. 165). Dualistic monotheism posits a good God struggling with another spiritual being who is evil. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam may have inherited dualistic monotheism from Zoroaster.
Judaism – From polytheism to monolatry to monotheism
• Early Judaism was polytheist. The Hebrew scripture depicts Yahweh competing for the attention of polytheistic gods like Baal. I Kings 18 records a show down that the prophet Elijah arranged between Baal and Yahweh (the LORD). Baal is unable to produce fire but Yahweh is able to answer Elijah’s prayer and consume a burnt offering with fire. After this contest, 450 of Baal’s prophets were killed.
• Afterwards, in I Kings 19, Elijah meets Yahweh on a mountaintop. Elijah experienced wind, an earthquake, and a fire, but Yahweh was not in these elements. And then Elijah experienced “a sound of sheer silence” (I Kings 19: 12 NRSV), representing Yahweh’s presence. “Unlike the pagan deities, Yahweh was not in any of the forces of nature but in a realm apart” (Armstrong, 1993, p. 27)
• Judaism came to advocate monolatry—allegiance to a single God. “Elijah wasn’t necessarily claiming Baal didn’t exist (the monotheistic position), just that he didn’t deserve the respect of Israelites” (Wright, 2009, p. 132).
• The late Jewish prophets—like Ezekiel and Isaiah—became monotheistic and described Yahweh as the only God, the creator of the universe, and often depicted him as a king.
• Jewish monotheism may have been heavily influenced by Zoroastrianism during the exile in Babylon. (Stark, 2007, ch. 4)

God as Father
• Describing God as father is a very late development in Judaism.
• “For you are our father, though Abraham does not know us and Israel does not acknowledge us; you, O LORD, are our father; our Redeemer from of old is your name.” (Isaiah 63: 16 NRSV)
• “Have we not all one father? Has not one God created us? Why then are we faithless to one another, profaning the covenant of our ancestors?” (Malachi 2:10 NRSV)
• Jesus taught his followers to pray to God as father: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven…” (Matthew 6: 9-10)
• In many of his parables (such as the prodigal son in Luke 15:11-32), Jesus encourages us to think of God as a loving father.
• Father became the dominant image of God in Christianity. Paul follows Jesus’ lead in referring to God as our father: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (I Corinthians 1:3)
Advantages of Imagining God as Father
• Imagining God as father makes God more tangible. Most of us were cared for by loving parents. It is hard to relate to an ineffable divine mystery.
• Modern Americans don’t readily relate to the Jewish image of God as king.
Disadvantages of Imagining God as Father
• Imagining God as father is a form of anthropomorphism–attributing human features to a nonhuman.
• What is you did not grow up with a loving father? If your father was distant, absent, or abusive, imagining God as father may distort your image and create a barrier to spirituality.
• Imagining God as father encourages us to think of God as male rather than female.

Female Images of God
• Ancient religions often worshipped female deities like Gaia, the primal Greek earth goddess.
• Feminists like Merlin Stone (1976) believe that patriarchal religions like Judaism and Christianity replaced earlier Goddess religions throughout the ancient world. Matriarchal religions may have treated women better than patriarchal religions. How we imagine God may influence how we treat one another.

Our Personal Response
• What do you want to do with the image of God as father?
• Do you want to modify this image in a personal way that makes it more useful?

Armstrong, K. (1993). A History of God. New York: Ballantine.
Stark, R. (2007). Discovering God: The origins of the great religions and the evolution of belief. New York: HarperCollins.
Stone, M. (1976). When God was a Woman. Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace.
Wright, R. (2009). The evolution of God. New York: Little, Brown and Company

Knittter, P. F. (2009). Without Buddha I could not be a Christian.
Patterson, S. J. (1998). The God of Jesus: The historical Jesus and the search for meaning

God as Spirit
The Trinity for Unitarians – Part Four
Outline prepared by Jeff E. Harris (2010)

Reflection Questions
• What is a spirit? What does it mean to you to be “filled with the spirit?”
• What does it mean to have a spiritual awakening or a spiritual encounter?

Popular Culture: Star Wars
Obi-Wan Kenobi teaches Luke Skywalker about the Force
• The Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It's an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.
• A Jedi can feel the Force flowing through him... Let go your conscious self and act on instinct... Your eyes can deceive you. Don't trust them... Stretch out with your feelings.

God’s Spirit in Hebrew and Christian Scripture
• Genesis 1:1-2. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters.”
• Isaiah 11:1-2. “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.”
• Luke 3:21-22. “Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (
• Acts 2:1-4. “When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.”
• One way to interpret the Pentecost story is to see that each of us can be filled with God’s Spirit in the same way that Jesus was.
Hokmah and Sophia
• In the Hebrew scripture, Hokmah was seen as a feminine personification of wisdom.
• The Jewish idea of Hokma may have evolved into the Christian idea of the Holy Spirit.
• In both Hebrew (Hokmah) and Greek (Sophia) the word for wisdom in feminine.
• The Spirit of God (pneuma tau theo) is seen by some as the feminine aspect of the Trinity.

Other Religious Sources
• Hinduism uses the word Brahman to name the absolute, outer, transcendent source. The word Atman is used to describe the human self.
• Wayne Teasdale described the relationship between Brahman and Atman in this way: “Through higher states of meditation, mystic seers contact Brahman, which opens the way to inner awareness of self, or Atman, the immanent presence of the Brahman within all beings and every particle of reality. Atman is Brahman and Brahman is Atman.” (Teasdale, 1999, p. 53)
• “Each of us can arrive at this same self-knowledge about our ultimate identity in God and as God—as Brahman….The mystic ‘hears’ and ‘feels’ God’s self-awareness, and shares in it to the level of declaring, with Brahman, ‘I am Brahman.’” (Teasdale, 1999, p. 54)
• The Buddhist term Sunyata can be translated as Emptiness (being able to receive) or as InterBeing. “It’s the interconnected state of things that is constantly churning out new connections, new possibilities, new problems, new life.” (Knitter, 2009, p. 12)
• Paul Knitter asked, “Is Emptiness or InterBeing an appropriate symbol for God? …Such a God of Emptiness and InterBeing is closer to what Christian mystics try to talk about when they describe their experiences of God.” (Knitter, 2009, p. 18)

Progressive Christianity
• Elizabeth Johnson (1992) described the Biblical view of Spirit: “When the Bible wants to speak about the transcendent God’s creative presence and activity in the world, it turns to words that carry the connotation of divine outreach, terms such as spirit, angel, wisdom, and word. Spirit, literally meaning a blowing wind, a storm, a stream of air, breath in motion, or something dynamically in movement and impossible to pin down, points to the livingness of God who creates, sustains, and guides all things and cannot be confined. Divine Spirit is not understood to be independently personal…but is the creative and freeing power of God let loose in the world.” (p. 82-83)
• Marcus Borg (1997) suggested that Spirit can be used as a primary image for God (rather than King/Lord/ Father): “As a root metaphor for the sacred, Spirit images God as a nonmaterial reality pervading the universe as well as being more than the universe. As used in the Bible (and as used here), its meaning is broader than the specific Christian doctrine of ‘the Holy Spirit’ which sees it as one aspect of God. But in the Bible, Spirit is used comprehensively to refer to God’s presence in creation, in the history of Israel, and in the life of the early church. Its meaning is sufficiently broad to make it a synonym for the sacred.” (p. 72)

Advantages and Disadvantages of Imagining God as an Indwelling Spirit
• This image allows God to be within us and we can let God work through us.
• God as Spirit is less anthropomorphic than images of “father” or “son.”
• It may be harder to relate to God if this Spirit can not be pictured in our mind.

Our Personal Response: Primary and Secondary Images of the Divine
• The Christian Trinity offers us three images of God. Do you want to personally embrace any of these as a primary image of the divine?
• Do you want to add images from other sources to complement or balance your primary image?

Borg, M. J. (1997). The God We Never Knew. New York: HarperCollins.
Johnson, E. A. (1992). She who is. New York: Crossroad.
Knittter, P. F. (2009). Without Buddha I could not be a Christian. Oxford, England: Oneworld.
Teasdale, W. (1999). The Mystic Heart: Discovering a Universal Spirituality in the World’s Religions. Novato, CA: New World Library.

Monday, June 13, 2011

For Trinity Sunday: The truth in the Trinity, from Rev. Carl Scovel, a UU minister

This Sunday, June 19, is Trinity Sunday in the liturgical year of many Christian churches, including those in the Unitarian Universalist tradition. I have increasingly referred to my own theology as a small t trinitarian large U Universalism. As a gift for all for this Sunday, I am reprinting here the essay "The truth in the Trinity: a re-examination of some cherished Unitarian views of God, with questions, by the Rev. Carl Scovel, minister emeritus of King's Chapel in Boston, receipient of the distinquished service award by the UUA and a Berry Street lecturer, originally printed in the Summer, 1973 issue of The UU Christian Journal.

At the end of the essay I will also provide links to contemporary discussions.

Here is the essay by Carl Scovel:

If God is Three
And three's a crowd,
Then only One
Can be allowed.
If God is One
and one's alone,
Then how can God
Come to his own?
If One is Three
Where's unity?
If three is One,
Then where's the fun?
But if God's free,
He might be three,
Or one, or four,
Or less, or more.
We keep on counting;
He keeps the score.

I suppose the question will arise: "Why discuss the Trinity anyway?" Who cares? Who is going to lose sleep over it? Does it make the slightest difference to the couples wandering in the park, to the bigwigs dickering in Moscow, or to the ballplayers on the athletic field? Does it really interest anyone who attends church nowadays--Unitarian or otherwise?

I asked myself this question a dozen times as I pored over Scripture and the church fathers. And the deeper I got into this doctrine, the more I read and scribbled, the more I encountered ideas and interpretations which ran headlong into each other, the more urgently did this question press itself upon me, until I realized that I was not looking for an answer, for a new doctrine or an old doctrine, but for a question. I was looking for the question which prompted four hundred years of profound and serious and sustained theological inquiry and debate, four centuries of history which have been summarily dismissed by many Christians and virtually all Unitarians as logic-chopping and vain speculation.

Yet we seek for the questions which will illuminate our faith. The issues which faced the church fathers during the first three centuries A.D. are here today, but they are badly put and badly argued. This is not surprising, for theology is hard and desperately unrewarding work. It is easier to spend one's time in committee meetings. But what the church--laity and clergy alike--needs today is clarity. We need to understand the promise that has been given to us. We need to know what is asked of us and what we have a right to ask. It is, therefore, not only proper but essential that we look at the church doctrines which we have so smoothly and arrogantly passed over before--and one of these is the doctrine of the Trinity. And if we need to go beyond the council of Nicea in 325 A.D. we need also to go beyond William Ellery Channing's 1819 Baltimore sermon on Unitarian Christianity.

The case for trinitarianismIn that sermon, Channing articulated the principal arguments against the Trinity which Unitarians have raised throughout Christian history. He said quite simply that the doctrine of the Trinity could not be found in the Bible. It was the same argument used by Michael Servetus three hundred years before and by Arius twelve hundred years before that. Channing wanted to go back to the simple religion of Jesus as he saw it in the Gospels and to bypass all the seemingly useless theological wrangling that followed.

And there's much to be said for Channing's side. The New Testament doesn't ever use the word "trinity." Tertullian coined it in the third century. Jesus refers to God as his father, says he must obey his father, return to his father, and so forth. He clearly subordinates himself to God. But what most Unitarians miss in the New Testament is the way in which Jesus identifies his work with God's work and his will with God's will (cf John 14:1-11). "I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but by me." "He who has seen me has seen the Father." "Know you not," he says to Phillip, who has asked him for a big display of miracles, "know you not that I am in the Father and the Father in me?" This echoes the faith of the early church. "God was in Christ," says Paul, "reconciling the world to Himself." (2 Cor 5:19). And again: "For if there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist (1 Cor 8:6). The New Testament may not teach the Trinity, but it surely seems to pave the way for the idea of the Trinity. The texts just cited are simply ignored by most Unitarians when they talk about going back to that "simple religion of Jesus."

It is necessary to realize that Jesus' ministry per se did not make a tremendous impact on the world while he was alive. His impact came after he died, in the events which we call the Resurrection. He came alive in the remembering, in the reliving of his life, by those who felt his impact in a way that they did not seem to when he was alive and with them. In a sense, he was more alive after he died, alive to those who were so struck by him that now they did not quite know what to do with their traditional Father-God. Jesus now seemed more real to them. They knew Jesus had taught them of the Father-God, but he seemed so much more vital than the God of tradition--until it occurred to them that the reason he seemed so real was that it was this God who was with him and in him and through him, and through him was now with them. Emmanuel--God-with-us--came true in Jesus Christ. This, I submit, was the early Christian's experience of God.

The question which the early church was trying to answer was: How is God with us? And the church answered it by saying, "He is with us through Christ, God's spirit now moving and speaking in our church, among us, present in our hymns and prayers and preaching and in the breaking of bread." No, this in itself does not create a doctrine of the Trinity, but it is clear that the Christian experience was moving in that direction.

The Council of Nicaea

I will not attempt to describe here the two centuries of debate that preceded the council of Nicea. What the Council decided in 325 was that the Son of God was not an angel, nor a creature like other creatures, but was derived from the very essence of God Himself. Christ was "God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God; being of one substance (homo-ousios) with the Father."

Now of course the Council of Nicea was a highly politicized event. It was called by the emperor, Constantine, in order to bring about theological unity in his empire. He paid the expenses of the 318 bishops who attended, and it is likely that he neither understood nor really cared much about the arguments that filled the air. What he wanted was a unified statement of belief, and he got it. Only two of the bishops who attended the Council--one of them Arius, a proto-Unitarian--refused to sign it.

I am convinced that certain benefits resulted from this decision. The trinitarian style of thinking preserved both the majesty of God and his proximity to his children, asserting both his mystery and his love without compromising either. The trinitarian style of thinking kept a certain motion or dynamic in the center of God. There is a church in Constantinople (Istanbul) which has a mosaic depicting God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit dancing with each other hand in hand. Motion is essential to an understanding of God, unless you prefer to see God as a big clockmaker who winds up the clock and then goes to sleep.

But the political atmosphere of Nicaea and the harshly dogmatic debates turned Christianity into a religion of propositions which one either assents to or denies. I can appreciate the (small t) trinitarian style of thinking, but hardening this into the formula of (capital T) Trinity has hurt the Christian faith.

Servetus and afterwards

It was up to Michael Servetus 1206 years after Nicaea, to raise this question again when he published On the Errors of the Trinity in 1531. In this work, written in the midst of Protestant and Catholic inquisitions, Servetus affirmed that the Bible teaches the Father is supreme, the Son is coeternal with the Father but subordinate to him, and that the Son can save mankind without being equal to the Father. For these heresies Servetus was executed in 1553, but his ideass travelled across Europe and eventually reached England, where in 1714 a young minister named Samuel Clarke, rector of the church of St. James in Picadilly, wrote a book that might have come from the pen of Servetus himself. It was called On the Scriptural Doctrine of the Trinity, and with 1250 Scriptural citations attempted to prove exactly what Servetus had said. Just before his death, Samuel Clarke amended the Book of Common Prayer, removing the prayers to Christ and the Athanasian Creed, and substituting Scriptural doxologies for the Gloria Patri. It was this revision of the Service of Morning Prayer which 55 years later became the basis for James Freeman's revision of the prayerbook at King's Chapel. The prayerbook now used in King's Chapel, therefore, contains the classical Unitarian Christian theological position. The prayerbook protects this position and makes possible its enunciation every Sunday.

From Unitarian Christianity to Humanism

At one time Unitarian Christianity was the theological position of every American Unitarian church. Now it is the position of relatively few Unitarians, and those few are dwindling. There is a reason for this. Unitarian Christianity has sought simplicity. Simplicity is fine, but simplicity has its dangers. It tends to become a religion of that which is intellectually the easiest to grasp, and of what feels to be true at the moment. Furthermore, one God without dynamics and without a mediator becomes either the unmoved Never, utterly transcendent and remote from man, or else becomes solely the Father God, so anthropomorphic that he ceases to be believable as God. For example, the God whom Channing described in his Baltimore Sermon sounds for all the world like a benevolent New England merchant. Very anthropomorphic.

In this Unitarian Christianity, God becomes either too remote or too close, but in either case the same result ensues. Man takes God's place. Unchecked Unitarianism then leads to Humanism. As Robert Frost aptly stated it in a passage in his Masque of Mercy (describing a bookstore owner named Keeper):

Keeper's the kind of Unitarian
Who having by elimination got
From many gods to Three, and Three to One,
Thinks why not taper off to none at all,
Except as father putative to sort of
Legitimize the brotherhood of man,
So we can hang together in a strike.

Intellectual positions do have consequences: What has happened to American Unitarianism is no accident. And what is amazing is how much mysticism and God-talk and orthodox hymnology still remain in Unitarian churches--a witness to the spiritual hunger of the human heart.

The church in a godless world

If then, we are to go beyond Nicaea, we must also go beyond Channing. We cannot go back to what is called "the simple religion of Jesus." It is just not available to us, and, after all, Christian faith is the response to Jesus; it is in fact the religion about Jesus, and there is no escaping this.

But we must begin where we are--in an essentially godless world, a world that gets along by and large without a sense of God and probably will indefinitely. Yet we are a special community--we who call ourselves Christians. We have elected to stand within the promise that God is with us. By being members of the Christian church we assume that somehow this promise is true, although we do not understand how. In fact, our question is the same one the church fathers asked so many centuries ago: "How is God with us? What does it mean--to be in Christ? How can Christ be close to us and yet remain still God in all His, or Its, mystery?" I believe that if we have the courage to ask these questions, God in his time and in his ways will answer us.


[Here are some more links for more recent conversation and exploration. The first is the link to an archived blog discussion on Chris Walton's Philocrites blog stemming from a post on the anti-trinitarianism of Isaac Newton and the place of responses to the Trinity in the UU history and tradition and contemporary setting. of the newer reconstruction of the Trinity comes from both liberation theologians, and missional church theologians such as Jorgen Moltmann, and also process theologians. For a bibliography of how process theologians approach the Trinity go to have also had good discussions online of the Trinity and UUism in our UUCF-L and UUCF-bible email lists you can join through the site.