Friday, December 04, 2015

In search of common ground

The Christian faith isn't new. It was to me in 1997, and I bought the idea from the 'charismatic movement' I found myself in that real Christianity was only really found in 1970... I probably misheard because I'd spent my childhood believing the story of progress that is quick to dismiss the primitive people who went before us in pursuit of the latest upgrade.

I need the light of those who have gone before me. "The breeze of the centuries." The Egyptian pastor Athanasius, of the 4th Century, is very helpful. He was called on to respond to his fellow Egyptian, Arius. They were part of a generation who emerged from an age of violent persecution into a time where free dialogue about faith was possible. Sixteen-hundred years later, we emerge from Christendom into a time where again few know much of the Christian faith.

Arius was keen to enter the conversation but Athanasius shows that Arius compromised his faith in pursuit of common ground. Athanasius writes:

Arius is trying to engage with people but he's lost the plot and dishonoured God in the process - whether accidentally or deliberately. He calls God The-One-Without-A-Beginning. He looks at creation and says "this had a beginning so let's agree that God is whoever made all this". That sounds reasonable but it dishonours Jesus, and deliberately so. He's claiming Jesus as a superman - the best of us and our example. 

This sounds impressive and reasonable. As with many who try to work God out, this misses the mark completely.

Instead of saying God became Human so Humanity can enter the life of God, they say Jesus isn't God. It sounds reasonable to say Jesus is a good teacher and a good man. It's reasonable to be impressed. But this is bad in two ways. Firstly, they puff up the humblest servant who ever lived, portraying him as a superman - an intimidating example. Secondly, they do the opposite of what they're attempting: they push the God who came near out of reach.

There is better news. If Jesus is God come into the world then he is the one who came to die, not as an example of great love but in love to mend what is broken (through his death that puts death to death) and  to make his Father known. Let Jesus be the signpost. He says he is the Son of God. God, then, is his Father. The Son who uniquely makes the Father known to us. Know yourself as one in need and so receive his help. Rather than busying yourself for him, sit at his feet and listen, knowing him and his Father.

How much better is that? If we call God the unmade maker all we're doing is saying that the creation was created. It sounds like we all believe in God. There's nothing wrong with looking for common ground but reducing God to a word without any meaning doesn't get us anywhere. Some might want a God they can approach as slaves to a master, saying "O, Uncreated One" but that's a shadow of what Jesus says. He said pray "Our Father". We're not slaves but sons, as we come in Jesus' name.

The good news of Jesus tells of the Father who will adopt any of us, through the open arms of his Son, through the Son who came to seek and save those who were lost. Clever people might like a Power-God they can get their head round, but their philosophising is just fantasy... The God and Father of Jesus is a God who doesn't require smartness of us, but rather loves out of sheer love.

Arius gets agreement about there being a God of some kind, but the real issue is "what of Jesus?" Jesus gets the ultimate common ground - God who become one of us. Jesus won't impress those who want to be impressed, but is the God who meets us right where we are, as one of us, in our shared experience of life in this broken world, in our mortality. And there he meets all kinds of people, any of us, on common ground, to bring us into the common life of the Trinity.

(Paraphrased from Athanasius' books, Against the Arians and On the Incarnation, with help from their interpreters, especially Peter Leithart, Glen Scrivener and Mike Reeves)

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