St David's Uniting Church, Canterbury
Sunday, June 22, 2003



Tercentenary of John Wesley, 26th Anniversary of UCA


Every so often a giant walks on the earth and leaves a deep footprint; Martin Luther, Isaac Newton, Elizabeth Fry, Florence Nightingale and others.  In this cavalcade none stand taller than John Wesley, for his impact not only on religion but on society. There were few things on which Wesley didn't have something to say. As was said of Jesus, the common people heard him gladly. But Wesley was not the common man. Nor was he a simple preacher from the sticks.  He was an intellectual, an Oxford don.  He read insatiably and wrote prolifically. He made a fortune from writing, and gave it all away.


Wesley was powerfully attracted by science, in which his father and brother Samuel were keenly interested.  His student days at Oxford found him often absorbed in scientific questions.  He read scientific works throughout his life, often while in the saddle.  He developed lists of scientific works for his teachers and preachers.  He incorporated scientific topics in his sermons.  As we mark his 300th birthday this is not insignificant in light of the direction we have been following with "God, Humanity and the Cosmos".  


Today we conclude the series.  Two weeks ago, out of the dialogue between theology and science, we floated the metaphor of God as 'cosmic mind' or 'mind of the cosmos.'   However, this doesn't answer the question "What is God doing today?"   So to three points and some stories.




First, God is with us as one who lets go.  This is a different spin on Jesus' metaphor of 'cosmic parent'.  Let me remind you that parenting involves with-drawing protection, direction and correction: letting go. A personal story.  My father was a good model, as a man and as a parent.  His own growing up had been accelerated by enlistment in his teens.  He fought in France and Belgium and at twenty was a decorated veteran.  At thirty-two he married my mother; I was born a year later.   I assume that as a small child I was protected, directed and corrected by him.  However, I have little recollection of this.  He must have tried to help me develop my own mental and moral resources quite early.  All I remember by way of rebuke was his occasional "Where's your judgement, man?"  He bought me a full-size bicycle when I was eleven.  I had to lean it against the fence to board, and took a few falls.  He taught me to drive on country roads when I was fourteen, and let me take the car once I had a licence.  

My strongest recollections are that he believed in me, trusted me, let me have my head and didn't fuss when I did something juvenile, dangerous or stupid.  There was that mishap with a cow, of course.  A bunch of them were straggling across the road and I aimed for a space.  It closed up.  Mother became excited, my little sister burst into tears and I concluded my driving days were over.  We surveyed the damage in silence.  Dad seized the torn mudguard and there was a crunch as he pulled it away from the wheel.  We picked up remains of a head-lamp and the door handle which had broken away.  Anxiously I said, "What now?"  Dad spoke his first and last words on the subject: "Drive on."


Not everyone can tell a story like that.  I was fortunate.  My father gave me great freedom, and yet was the major influence on my life.  I cannot help thinking he made it easier for me to explore a mode of godtalk which follows the lead of those scientists we mentioned last week.  Had my memory been of someone still protecting, still directing, still correcting me at seventeen or eighteen, I may have concluded God was like that or should be like that.


Now, I realise the scriptures give us a picture of One who protects, directs and corrects, but there is another and more subtle message especially in the stories about creation.  The Adams Family are depicted as God's farm managers.  This suggests that God believes in humanity, trusts humanity, is ready to let humanity have the kind of freedom which could be misused. The operative word is God's trust in humanity!  And that means a big, big risk. But this is the way it is with the whole shebang. John Polkinghorne says, "God allows the world to make itself with all the necessary raggedness and blind alleys which will inescapably come with that."  So . . . God is with us (and everything) as one who 'lets go'.




Second, God is with us as one who limits godself.  Arthur Peacocke, chemistry professor at Oxford and Anglican priest, sees God as having renounced 'omnipotence' and 'omniscience'.  That is, God isn't all-powerful and all-knowing.  Peacocke says this is implicit in our saying that God's nature is love. Love makes itself  'vulnerable', you see.


Some years ago I met Rabbi Gunther Plaut, President of the American Council of Jewish Rabbis.  He said it was quite false to say God was omnipotent.  By an act of sovereign will, God gave up omnipotence by giving freedom to the creation.  God cannot take that away without acting in a way contrary to his nature. Charles Birch says there are things a God of love cannot do. "The God of love could not change the decision of the rich young ruler to whom Jesus spoke.  When persuasion failed, coercion did not take over.  Let's give up the destructive notion of divine omnipotence that plagues so much of Christian theology!"

Rabbi Plaut said it was also wrong to say God was omniscient; that is, that God could know everything including what you and I might do in the next five minutes or five years.  If God knew everything, then God could never be surprised or have second thoughts.  He referred to the Noah story in Genesis 6.  "The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually.  And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth!"


If God can have regrets, the implication is that God thinks he made a mistake!  I know this sounds like we're talking of God in crudely human terms, but make allowances for the antiquity of the story.  The point is that it's wrong to say God is all-powerful and all-knowing.  If you give someone autonomy, then you've limited your power by the extent of that, and you can't know what they will do because that lies in the openness of the future.  John Polkinghorne says we live in a world whose ground rules don't specify everything that will happen.  He says, "they outline an envelope of future possibilities . . .  we live in a world of flexible openness."




Third point: God is with us in a 'reciprocal' relationship.  Indeed, God is evolving with creation!  This may sound shocking if you feel God has to be immutable.  But before you dismiss it as nonsense (heresy if you must, but not nonsense!) there are a couple of things we must take into account.  One is that living means changing.  No entity from sub-atomic particles up is unaffected by its relationships within the whole.  We're told that when such particles bump into each other, the direction of their movement is affected.  When human beings bump into each other, the direction of their life is affected.  Their beliefs, attitudes and values their essential being responds to the stimuli that come from relating to other entities.  Let me try to illustrate this with a fanciful story.


Try to imagine David Attenborough invites you to partner him on a two-month exploration of some tropical rain forest with camera crew, fuel and food drops.  Suppose you ask him what will be the precise outcome of this adventure.  What would be your reaction if he said, "Well, I haven't fixed all the details.  Mainly we're after more knowledge of rain forest flora and fauna.  Come with me and we'll work it out as we go."  Obviously his being the senior partner will mean Mr Attenborough has a major influence.  But you'll have freedom to disagree, to initiate some activities yourself, and also to influence the final outcome of the project.  You're in a 'reciprocal' relationship with Mr Attenborough.


To push this fantasy a little further, it may be that you'll run into some conflict and some mutual disappointment neither of you feeling very happy with the other. He may turn out to be different from what you expected, and you different from what he would have preferred.  (Remember the Noah story)  If you should prove at times to be a bit obtuse or obstinate, he may register real sadness and some disillusionment with you.  After all, when you are thrown fairly close together, this sort of thing is part and parcel of a relationship.  At the end of the two months neither you nor David Attenborough will be the people you were at the start of the expedition.  The relationship itself will be different too.


I invite you to consider this as the way things are between God and the universe, between God and planet earth, between God and you and me.  Traditionalists want to protest at this and call us back to ideas of a God who is unaffected and immutable (unchangeable).  To that I can only say, "Does not Christian faith suggest that God suffers?"  If God 'feels', then God is affected.  What about God changing God's mind?  Obviously if God has left the way open for us to misuse our freedom and make a mess, and God is engaged with and within the whole process of what's happening, then God must be able to have a change of mind!  Charles Birch says, "If God is love and if that love is responsive, God is not the unmoved mover of classical theism.  God to be love must be intimately affected by the plight and suffering of the world."  One of my Jewish friends says, "Of course, God is 'evolving' with the universe.  Have you forgotten what the voice from the burning bush said to Moses?  'I will be what I will be'. "


Do you know why I find so-called 'creationism' silly?  It allows no room for God to be still creating.  It says that everything was finished in some fictitious week about 6,500 years ago.   Scientists are saying the whole system is still in process of becoming. Creation is not an event; it is a process.  The universe has freedom to respond or not respond to possibilities yet to be realised.  God, as 'mind of the cosmos' presents what is actual in our world, and in our lives, with what is possible.  Hence Charles Birch's wonderful concept of 'The Great Persuader'.  Not the great manipulator, but the persuasive power of love at the very heart of reality, responding at every moment to the creation's exercise of its freedom, and luring it onward and upward. This way of thinking about God is true to your life, and also fits with what scientists show us about the way things work. 


I had intended to end with something about the 'new Quakers' (as I call them) and recovering the art of listening for the holy whispers.  The Great Persuader does not shout, but speaks in the silent stillness. But that will be for another day.



Genesis 2:15-20.  God appoints the Adams Family farm managers

Matthew 7:24-27  Not even God can protect a foolish man


An address delivered in St David's Uniting Church, Canterbury, by the Rev Dr John Bodycomb