Beyond Pluto

In ancient times the word ‘planetai’, meaning wanderers, was applied to the seven heavenly bodies that moved. They couldn’t see Neptune and Pluto. Also, being pre-Galileo, it was assumed the sun was one of the seven and the earth wasn’t. The definition of planet was therefore not fixed but was to be influenced by changes in science and thinking in the years ahead.

This is not so different from the Christian history of God. Within the pages of the Bible God progresses from being a personal deity, to a tribal deity, to a deity who was pan-tribal, to one that transcended all human constructs. The location of God moved from the desert, to the Temple, to a literal realm in the sky, to the presence of the historical Jesus. Later in the early centuries of Christianity, via an intricate weaving of Greek and Hebrew thought with the experience of transformative love in Jesus, God was woven into the tapestry called Trinity. But the development of God didn’t stop there, locked in the 4th century. God as ‘process’, as ‘go-between’, as ‘liberator’, as ‘matrix of grace’… were all still to come.

The influence of science and philosophy on the definition and development of God is not to be underestimated. Indeed it is the interplay between experience, history, and science that has pushed at and shown as puny the simplistic notions of God.

God is a word that defies close definition. Language being a system of signs and codes is based around the visible and tangible. When language has to be found for the invisible and intangible then multiple metaphors are used. We say the thing we are trying to describe is something like this, but also not like that. It is also something like this, but also not like that. No one set of metaphorical clothes quite fits. In theology we surmise that such is the nature of God that no sets of clothing will ever quite fit.

The other word in theology that defies close definition is soul. Soul, or ‘heart’ as it’s sometimes called, is an attempt to talk about God in us and us in God. It blends passion, feeling, wisdom, and wholeness. A person can gain the whole universe, be as rich and successful as he or she could possibly imagine, yet without attending to their soul they gain nothing. To nurture the soul, the task of spirituality, is therefore very important. All sorts of little things help – walking in the bush, conversing with a child, smelling the coffee before you drink it, laughing often… Yet answering the question of why these things help is harder. It is as if the universe is inside us, and all the spinning, pulling, moving and amazing wonders need to be held together in some way.

When I was a teenager I spent many nights each year sleeping under the stars. There is nothing quite like falling asleep beneath an enormous canopy of twinkling lights, variously arranged, and different each evening. Being a child of modernity I knew that the blackness of the sky was not a great dome that encompassed the earth and above which a kingly God sat. I knew the blackness was all I could see of the fathomless depth beyond, where the experience we call God might or might not be. For everything that astronomy could tell us there was always more it couldn’t. Yet, like the best of theology, its purpose was to ignite wonder and imagine limitless possibility.

Should Pluto be relegated? The debate will continue for some time yet. The pragmatists will probably triumph over the purists. They usually do. Yet the former need to be cognisant that their revised definition will in time also change. Heavenly bodies are not always what they seem.


To Pluto

“Honk if you love Pluto” declares the T-shirt. Not too dissimilar from the ones promoting honking for Jesus. And, like so often happens with discussing heavenly bodies, the Pluto debate is up and raging. The International Astronomy Union (IAU) meeting in Prague last month adopted a new definition of a planet – one that knocked Pluto out of the club.

Living on the extremities of planetary imagination - even with the Hubble Space Telescope it is still merely a bleary sphere in shades of grey - Pluto didn’t join the club until 1930. That was the year when a 24-year-old American by the name of Clyde Tombaugh mapped movement where movement had not been mapped before. A young girl from Oxfordshire suggested the name of Pluto, Roman God of the Underworld. Beyond Pluto was the abyss of unknowing.

Since the 1930s Pluto has shrunk. With each advance in technology Pluto’s measurements have diminished. It’s now smaller than our moon. Hence the T-shirts, without the honking, that proclaim ‘size doesn’t matter!’ and ‘is a dachshund not a dog?’

What does matter to the astronomical elites is the discovery in the 1990s of other Pluto-like bodies on the edge of our telescopic vision. And not just one, or five, but hundreds, and probably thousands!

This naming debate has spilled over into popular consciousness. The public wanted a voice. Pluto was not just a bleary dot out in space it is something people love. It inspired and inspires myths, art, and poetry. It is part of astrology charts – ‘Pluto direct’ is a way of talking about transformational energy. Kids identify with Pluto’s smallness. In particular adults who forlornly hope that ‘whatever has been will forever be’ find its demotion out of the Big Nine major league of planets difficult to accept.

The pragmatists of astronomy suggest that instead of knocking Pluto out of the club that the IAU change the rules. In other words expand the definition of planet to include not only the eight and Pluto but also Eris [formerly known as Xena] and Ceres. The purists though argue that this will open the doors to hundreds maybe millions of potential new planets. This is a debate about not only who can join the club and who controls who joins the club, but also the fear of loosing control of the boundaries. Sounds very much like Christianity me!


Colouring The City

Sun breaks through the clouds
Igniting the rain-drenched road.
The world looks new
Washed and gleaning
Glistening as the fairies dance.

Pink is a powerful colour
Favoured of the young princess
Pirouetting in the privacy of her room.
Yet it is largely absent from the tie racks
of downtown business.

Colour is political in the city
Blue and red compete for allegiance
Green is a brand without a billboard.
Brown, bent, and cold are
the colours of poverty.

The fairies dance up the road
Dodging the traffic, slurs, and unbelievers.
Only little children hold their breath as
imagination confronts the colours
offering an inkling of hope.

The hope of the city is found in the contrasts – of ideology, beliefs, people, and colour.

Drinks on the House

Jesus on a beerglass to spearhead Christmas campaign - ekklesia news service 14/09/06

A Christmas poster campaign aimed at getting people talking about God is to feature a picture of Jesus on a beer glass.The image of Jesus in the froth left on the sides of an almost empty pint glass next to the words 'Where will you find him?' will spearhead the Churches' Advertising Network (CAN) initiative.

The poster picks up on the current media preoccupation with finding images of Jesus in everything from egg yolks to currant buns. Next to an empty beer glass in which a face can be seen are the words "Where will you find him?" and pointing to the web address myspace.com/isthisjesus.


Where is Jesus at the Dinner Table?

Anglicanism at its best is into diversity but not apartheid. You can’t go off into your corner, erect your security walls of right belief, and stay there. We are not the ‘closeted brethren’. Like it or not you have to relate to the hetero-orthodox. You have to relate to those you find repugnant. We call it being in communion.

All of us are invited to Jesus’ cosmopolitan dinner party. You are invited along with the weird, the wacky, the wonderful, the heretics, the harmful, and the harmless. And we don’t sit in silence eating our own pre-packed sanitized meal. We talk, we share food, and we listen... Some have washed their hands. Some have washed their hearts. Others are dirty. Infection is possible. Purity is out the window. If you don’t want to risk getting grubby don’t come.

Jesus is there too. But, and this is the hard bit, he’s in disguise. None of us are sure who he is. It’s not like he’s got a crown plastered on his head or a cross strapped to his back. Is Jesus that nice person or that disagreeable one? Is he the pain in the neck that won’t shut up, or the quiet morose one sipping his merlot? Is he a she? And which she is he? Like I said, this is hard. We don’t know whom he is agreeing with, if anyone. All we know is that he is there. This is what I think our new archbishop, David Moxon, was meaning when he said recently that “in any discussion the first principle is that Christ is in the room.”

The hard part of not knowing what Jesus looks like is that in our discussion and arguments around the dinner table each of us will have to find authority within ourselves. We can’t turn to Jesus and seeing him or her nodding in agreement with us. There will be no external reference point, no judge or encyclopedia to determine right and wrong. On second thoughts I wonder whether any archbishop would really want that.

My punt is heaven’s going to be a little like this. For some it will be hell.


Dining with Jesus

With compassion and acceptance at the core of his values Jesus got a reputation for wild dinner parties. Around the same table would sit a rural fisherman, a one-time leader of the Synagogue, a prostitute, a local bullyboy, a Roman soldier, an immigrant woman from over the border…. Jew and gentile, male and female, strange and familiar…

The Hebraic purity system had strict boundaries in place: “Don’t eat with them, don’t touch that, don’t fraternize with her… Look out or you’ll get grubby… and then you won’t be able to eat with us!” Purity was about rules. Piety meant adhering to them.

For Jesus purity was constituted by what was in one’s heart. If compassion was in one’s heart, then piety meant being hospitable, generous, and willing to suspend one’s prejudices in order to meet with strangers. For Jesus it wasn’t about keeping to the rules; it was about letting love be the measure of all you do.

It’s not that Jesus was into a tolerance that said, “Everything is okay”. It is possible to find verses that infer, for example, that Jesus was opposed to the Roman occupation and unsupportive of bullying and prostitution. At the same time I don’t think it is possible to categorically say that every soldier, tax collector, and prostitute Jesus dined with had renounced the morally disagreeable aspects of their professions.

In other words, at the table with Jesus the agreeable and disagreeable sat together. The sinners and saints broke bread together. The ideas, comments, and chat were not religiously sanitized. I imagine there were some pretty colourful words and some pretty novel views bandied around. The good, the bad, and the grubby were all together.

“What makes a person holy,” Jesus intonated, “is not who you mix with or what they say. What makes a person holy is being true to the God of compassion that wants to include everyone. It’s the words you say and things you do that will reveal that God.”


The House, Sex, and Blessings

Tonight I have, once again, the privilege and duty of attending the annual Auckland Diocesan Synod. So today I’ve been writing speeches. The one below is seconding a motion on that in-house debate about who is allowed in the Anglican house and who isn’t. As well as, of course, the supposedly vexed issued of same-sex blessings.

Dear Members of Synod,

In seconding this motion I wish to firstly affirm the resolution of General Synod in its desire to include all Anglican bishops and churches in the two instruments of unity, the Lambeth Conference and the Anglican Consultative Council.

Certainly in the metaphorical construct of the Anglican Church as ‘family’ it is contrary to family unity and wellbeing to reject the errant children and refuse to admit them to the familial dining table. For resolution to occur all family members need to be invited to the table, and invited to participate.

Now, from my perspective, the errant children are not the American and Canadian churches, but those who are seeking their exclusion. Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Christians have always been part of the Church. Of course a number of you won’t share my perspective, nor do I expect you to. I do expect though that as Anglicans in Aotearoa with our history of working at numerous issues of difference, like race, gender, and sexuality, we would encourage the wider Communion to make physical room at its tables for those who see and experience life differently.

Secondly, the last clause of this motion gives me the opportunity to tell a little of the story of St Matthew-in-the-City and how I understand the notion of blessing.In the 1970s the then vicar, Maurice Russell, allowed a group of gay, lesbian, and transgender Christians to meet for prayer in the Thomas Chapel. In time this group grew into the Auckland Community Church and held regular evening services. The effect on the ministry of St Matthew’s was significant. We were seen as a safe place for gay people and as a result many joined our morning congregation. The clergy were also affected. Apart from becoming targets for those who found such hospitality objectionable, we were privileged to hear something of what it was like to be gay and Christian and how destructive hetero-sexual norms could be. We were also approached by couples that wished to affirm their love, commitment, and fidelity to each other, and be prayed for and blessed by a priest. And so it has been for nearly thirty years.

In recent times being blessed has become more controversial than being welcomed or prayed for. At St Matthew’s we understand blessing to be simply, and profoundly, about proclaiming the love of God.

To bless or not to bless is therefore on one level not a moral decision. It is not about approving the lifestyle or morality of heterosexual or homosexual couples. Just as by dining with a great variety of people Jesus was not making a comment about their morality. He was rather making a comment about God’s morality. God’s love included them. Once that love had been experienced they were then free to respond however they chose.

“Hey, Glynn, what about someone we find morally repugnant? Should a priest bless them?” My answer is simply “Yes.” Of course offering a blessing in some situations is not easy. Yet most times we do it.

Any couple, gay or straight, saintly, sinful or somewhere in between, should be able to come to a priest for a blessing. The priest is not making a statement about their morality, but about the unconditional love of God.