Here at the beginning of the New Year of 2020, I’m taking time to reflect on the end of an age and the beginning of another. Some will begin the celebration of the new decade now since we’ve moved into the 20’s, but as the mathematicians will tell us, the numbering of years began with a 1, so the old decade ends in the zero year, and the new decade won’t begin for another year. I enjoy parties, so you can invite me to your party this year, and I’ll invite you to my party next year. Twice as much fun for everyone!
Each year brings new changes. We age, get married or divorced, or have children. My daughter, if she had lived, would now be as old as I was when I began my fifth career by answering the call and going to seminary. Time flies when you’re having fun, and it can plumb get away from you when your life is tipsy turvey. Yet, history tells us life has always been turbulent and we don’t live in extraordinary times. The world of the Bible, Shakespeare, and the poets remind us human nature has always been in conflict with God’s plans for peace.
THE SECOND COMING
By William Butler Yeats
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
This poem ends with the famous lines, “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” Yeats wrote it in 1919, after the end of World War I. This date is significant, for we’re at the centennial celebration of this Great War, but also at a watershed moment in our modern life. H. G. Wells, the sci-fi writer, called it the “war to end all wars,” but later he thought any war was waged with the hope to end war forever.
Today our world seems to be falling apart once again. The center doesn’t seem to hold, but instead the voices of the extremes fill the sound waves and social media. Some of us want to escape under our covers, while others act out in rages. We in the middle keep praying, “Come Lord Jesus!”
Sea Changes are Inevitable
If we today are in a sea change, we should look back on the times of historic tumult. We need first to give credit to Shakespeare for creating the word and its current meaning in his play The Tempest, from 1610, in which ARIEL sings:
Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell
Change to a Heliocentric Universe
During Shakespeare’s time, the most exciting sea change was the shift from the earth-centric universe to the heliocentric universe. Copernicus had proposed this earlier, but Galileo was able to prove it by direct observation once he had a working telescope. Galileo modified one of the early spyglasses used on ships and made a telescope from it. With it, he was able to see the mountains and craters of the moon, and study the planets as they crossed the sky.
Because the Catholic Church had taught for centuries the earth was the center of the universe, in 1616 Galileo was charged with the crime of heresy, or teaching false doctrines, because of his belief in a sun centered universe. When he published a book of proofs on Copernicus’ Theory in 1632, he was convicted again and sentenced to house arrest for his teachings.
New ideas are hard to accept by even the most learned persons in a generation. We have believed what we’ve known to be true for so long, our minds can’t even flex and bend to a new idea. Some say this is why we can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but that’s not always true. While some think Shakespeare may have known of Galileo’s treatise, Starry Messenger, others disagree. Reputable astronomers, theologians and poets in England continued to cogently defend Ptolemy’s earth centric universe well into the late 17th century.
Still, Shakespeare has his Hamlet dream of infinite space: “O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space…” (2.2.55- 56).
Arabic Numerals “unwelcome” to a majority of Americans
Even today, we have difficulty accepting strange or foreign ideas. A recent poll asked, “Should Americans, as part of their school curriculum, learn Arabic numerals?” A Pittsburgh-based research firm CivicScience questioned 3,200 Americans recently in a poll seemingly about mathematics, but the outcome was a measure of students’ attitudes toward the Arab world. Some 56 percent of the respondents said, “No.” Fifteen percent had no opinion.
Those results, which quickly inspired more than 24,000 tweets, might have been sharply different had the pollsters explained what “Arabic numerals” are. There are 10 of them: 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9.
HOW HAVE OUR IDEAS ABOUT GOD CHANGED ACROSS THE CENTURIES?
If Jesus is fully human and fully divine, can he be said to be male in the ordinary sense? When Jesus ascended into heaven, did his full human nature incorporate into the Holy Trinity? Also, does God the Father participate in the same human characteristics of earthly fathers, or is Father a title only which excludes the characteristics of Motherhood?
As we ask these engendered human questions about relationships in the spiritual realm, perhaps we are missing the mark entirely. If we project our human relationship experiences on the Holy Trinity, we attempt to make it in our own image. Instead, we’re called to look at the greater image and remake our own lives to conform with it.
A Closer Look at Engendered Language
This means we need to take a closer look at the language used across the centuries of Christian tradition. It has changed with the times, as people of faith have worked out what the faith means. The earliest years involved many of our great doctrines, but that doesn’t mean they’re fixed in concrete. As we revisit them in new contexts and with new insights, we might find fresh expressions of older ideas.
Much has been made over the years of Christian tradition of God the Father and the maleness of the Holy Trinity. Some say this was to separate Christianity from pagan religions, which had both sexes in their pantheon. The doctrine of the trinity also has roots in Greek philosophy. Inspired by the Timaeus of Plato, Philo read the Jewish Bible as teaching that God created the cosmos by his Word (logos), the first-born son of God. By further emanation from this Word, God creates all that there is by means of his creative power and his royal power (conceived of both as his powers, and yet as agents distinct from him) giving him, as it were, metaphysical distance from the material world.
Arian Heresy (The Son is a Creature)
Several hundred years later, in accordance with an earlier subordinationist theological tradition, Arius taught the Son of God was a creature, made by God from nothing a finite time ago. Some time around 318–21 CE, a controversy broke out, with Arius’ teaching opposed initially by his bishop Alexander of Alexandria (d. 326). Alexander examined and excommunicated Arius. Numerous churchmen, adhering to subordinationist traditions about the Son rallied to Arius’ side, while others who favored theologies holding to the eternal existence of the Son and his ontological equality (of the same substance and nature with the Father) joined his opponents. The dispute threatened to split the church, and a series of councils ensued, variously excommunicating and vindicating Arius and his defenders, or their opponents. Each side successively tried to win the favor of the then-current emperor, trying to manipulate imperial power to crush its opposition.
Council of Constantinople
By the time of the council of Constantinople (381 CE), an anti-subordinationist reading, vigorously championed by Alexandrian bishop Athanasius (d. 373) had the upper hand; homoousios was understood as asserting the Father and Son to not merely be similar beings, but in some sense one being. While it stopped short of saying that the Holy Spirit was homoousios with the Father and Son, the council did say that the Holy Spirit “is worshiped and glorified together with the Father and the Son”, and added in a letter accompanying their creed that the three share “a single Godhead and power and substance” (Leith 1982, 33; Tanner 1990, 24, 28). Over the ensuing period the same sorts of arguments used to promote the divinity of the Son, were reapplied to the Holy Spirit, and eventually inhibitions to applying homoousios to the Holy Spirit evaporated.
From the standpoint of later catholic orthodoxy, a key episode in this series occurred in 325, when the Emperor Constantine (ca. 280–337) convened a council of bishops and decreed the Father and Son were homoousios (of the same substance or essence). Arius and his party were excommunicated. The intended meaning of ousia here was far from clear, given the term’s complex history and use, and the failure of the council to disambiguate it (Stead 1994, 160–72). They most likely settled on the term because it was disagreeable to the party siding with Arius. This new and ambiguous formula fanned the flames of controversy, as subordinationists and anti-subordinationists understood the phrase differently when signing on to it, and later argued for conflicting interpretations of it.
Athanasius and others in the prevailing party argued the salvation of humans required the Son and Holy Spirit to be equally divine with the Father. This kind of argument depends on various controversial models of salvation, such as the one on which salvation involves the “deification” or “divinization” of humans, which can only be accomplished by one who is himself divine (Rusch 1980, 22–23).
Despite shifting convictions about what salvation is and how God accomplishes it, this basic sort of argument remains popular—that if Christ and/or the Holy Spirit were not in some sense “fully divine”, then humanity couldn’t be saved by their actions. One of the most currently popular arguments is our forgiveness by God, an infinitely valuable being, requires an atoning sacrifice of infinite value. Hence, Christ has to be fully divine, as only a fully divine being has infinite value. Also, Christ must be fully human in order to save all of our humanness. This is usually stated as “Christ became human that we might become divine.”
The Athanasian Creed
By the sixth century the Athanasian Creed, written by an anonymous author, announced this image of the Trinity:
The Father eternal, the Son eternal, and the Holy Spirit eternal. And yet they are not three eternals, but one Eternal.
As also there are not three incomprehensibles, nor three uncreated, but one Uncreated, and one Incomprehensible. So likewise the Father is Almighty, the Son Almighty, and the Holy Spirit Almighty. And yet they are not three almighties, but one Almighty.
So the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God. And yet they are not three gods, but one God.
St. John Chrysostom
St. John Chrysostom, who lived in the 5th century CE, called Christ our “friend, and member, and head, and brother, and sister, and mother”.
St. Anselm, the 11th-century Archbishop of Canterbury, prayed to “Christ, my mother” and called God “the great mother”.
Julian of Norwich
Julian of Norwich, an English recluse, in her 14th-Century Revelations of Divine Love says: “Just as God is our Father, so God is also our Mother”. She talks about “our precious mother, Jesus”. She speaks of the Trinity, usually described as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in these terms: “Our Father desires, our Mother operates, and our good Lord the Holy Ghost confirms”.
As for the language of church services, some British denominations have gone ahead of the Church of England into inclusivity. The Methodist Church introduced a new service book in 1999 which uses both male and female language for God, “our Father and our Mother”. The United Reformed Church agreed in 1984 to use inclusive language in all its publications and last year its General Assembly called on all URC congregations to use “inclusive and expansive language and imagery in worship”.
Also some parts of Judaism are exploring more inclusive language for God. In 1975, in the US, Naomi Janowitz and Margaret Wenig produced a version of the prayer book Siddur Nashim, which used female pronouns and images for God. In 1996, Gates of Repentance, the High Holy Day prayer book of Reform Judaism, was published, calling God “sovereign” instead of “king”, and “source” or “parent” instead of father.
There has been no comparable movement in Islam, which is less open to this kind of reinterpretation. Christianity and Judaism, however, seem to be in the process of a major continuing realignment. This sea change is comparable to the shift a century ago when the familiar Newtonian world collapsed and Einstein shook the scientific foundations with his Theory of Relativity.
The shift from Newtonian to General Relativity
The old empires and European houses which had thrived for centuries had collapsed into conflict, paving the way for a new world to emerge. Similarly, Einstein’s theories had set the world of science at each other’s throats. As The Observatory said: “Many eminent men of science had refused to accept Einstein’s theory; this was probably due in part to the upsetting of old and ingrained ideas that it caused.”
By the time Albert Einstein had corrected his mathematical mistakes and published the completed theory of general relativity, World War I was in full swing. Afterwards, Germany was in shambles, and too wrecked to mount expeditions to the distant parts of the world where an eclipse in 1919 would be visible. In the midst of war, with no peace plans in sight, Sir Arthur Eddington and Sir Frank Watson Dyson plunged ahead to prove Einstein’s theory. The war ended, and they brought back photographic evidence of the shift of light from the stars during the eclipse, which Einstein had predicted.
General relativity abandoned Newton’s idea that gravity is a force pulling objects together. It reimagined gravity as a warping of time and space — a distortion in the fabric of the universe. According to the mathematics of relativity, light traveling through this distortion will change its path, accommodating the universe’s warps and wefts. The more massive an object, the bigger the distortion, and the more its gravity can bend light.
Newton’s theory of gravity made a competing prediction, worked out in detail by a German astronomer in 1801. His math suggested a shift only half as large, based on the notion that the force of the sun’s gravity would pull on the distant stars’ light particles.
Still, general relativity itself wasn’t immediately accepted. Some scientists had trouble understanding it. “The complications of the theory of relativity are altogether too much for my comprehension,” American astronomer George Ellery Hale confessed in a letter, which also celebrated the results from the 1919 eclipse. Others looked for alternative explanations for the moving stars, clinging to Newton’s vision of the universe.
However, Lick astronomers confirmed relativity again during the 1922 and 1923 eclipse observations in Australia and Mexico. Meanwhile, observations of the star Sirius B seemed to support another prediction, that the gravity of stars stretches the light waves they emit. Quasars, which send out powerful radio waves, also confirm Einstein’s theory of general relativity, for astronomers can measure how the sun bends those radio waves.
Read below an interesting poem, written by Sir Arthur Eddington, director of the Cambridge Observatory, who was a math prodigy and devout Quaker. Ready to be imprisoned as a conscientious objector, Eddington, like Einstein, believed in pacifism. He had acquired a copy of Einstein’s theory and was one of the few English-speaking scientists who had a thorough understanding of general relativity. He teamed up with Astronomer Royal Sir Frank Watson Dyson to persuade his nation in 1919 to put relativity to the test.
A Poem by Sir Arthur Eddington
Oh leave the Wise our measures to collate
One thing at least is certain, LIGHT has WEIGHT,
One thing is certain, and the rest debate —
Light-rays, when near the Sun, DO NOT GO STRAIGHT.
Discovery of The Dark Side
Now scientists believe only 5% of the universe is matter, but the rest of the universe is made up of dark matter and dark energy, both of which are hard to quantify. Yes, this is a sea change that rocks our fragile boats on the very large ocean of space. Once upon a time, we human creatures thought we had knowledge locked down, but now we’ve discovered once again, we know even less than Shakespeare did. We have the whole brave, new world before us, and may we be good enough to inherit it.
When does the Decade begin and end?
WHAT DID SHAKESPEARE KNOW ABOUT COPERNICANISM?
By ALAN S. WEBER
Shakespeare: The Tempest