News & Messages

Letter from Trialogue Task Force

Dear friends in Christ:

We are in an exciting moment as Episcopalians in Wisconsin. We hope you have heard something about the Trialogue, conversations taking place among Episcopalians across the state about the future shape of the Episcopal Church here. These conversations are broad and open-ended as we explore how we might collaborate throughout the state in ministry and mission, witnessing to the Good News of Jesus Christ. We hope to envision and embody new ways of being together as Wisconsin Episcopalians. In the book of Acts, the disciples found themselves moved and inspired by the Holy Spirit to cross boundaries between Jew and Gentile, to carry the gospel into all the world. So too are we being challenged by the Holy Spirit to embark on a new journey.

Such journeys take us into uncharted territory, leaving the comforts of home, the past, and tradition behind. As we explore these new relationships there is considerable uncertainty as well as excitement, fear alongside hope.

 The “Parish and Regional Engagement Task Force” is one of seven task forces participating in the Trialogue. We are reaching out to Episcopalians across the state to listen and learn, to hear your questions and concerns, your hopes and dreams. To that end, in the coming weeks, our task force will contact every congregation in all three dioceses to solicit your feedback, your questions, concerns, and anxieties about the Trialogue and about the future of the Episcopal Church in Wisconsin. We look forward to hearing from you and to serve as a conduit sharing your questions, your hopes and fears with the other task forces and with the Steering Committee.

In the name of Christ,

The Rev. Dcn. Paul Aparicio, Diocese of Fond du Lac, co-facilitator
The Rev. Dr. Jonathan Grieser, Diocese of Milwaukee, co-facilitator
Bevra Cole, Diocese of Milwaukee
Tim Donahue, Diocese of Eau Claire
The Rev. Julie Hendrix, Diocese of Fond du Lac
Edie McDougal, Diocese of Eau Claire
The Rev. Dcn. Steve Russell, Diocese of Eau Claire
The Rev. Joanne Skidmore, Diocese of Fond du Lac

https://www.episcopalwisconsin.info/

Who and What is God?

Dear Theologian,

 Who is God? What is God?

Seeking Wisdom

Dear Seeker,

You don’t waste words, do you? These are questions that can never be answered adequately. But it is helpful to have them posed so simply and directly—almost as a child might ask them.

When confronted so directly and inescapably, the believer might well feel at a loss to answer. How can one put into words what is infinitely greater than the human mind? But we try. Since you have asked a theologian (not a mystic or a poet), you are going to get somewhat philosophical, rational answers. But there are other ways of responding to your questions—in sacred music, inspired songs, works of art, poems, and perhaps most convincingly, in the lives of holy men and women.

All speaking about God ought to be done with great humility, modesty and reverence. But this is not always the case. We Church people use the word “God” so often and so familiarly that we are in some danger of becoming glib and superficial in our “God-talk.” We can lose the sense of awesome Mystery that must always accompany any serious speech about God.

We sense this Mystery at certain moments of heightened awareness. Peter Gomes speaks of “those close encounters of the transcendent kind that suggest relationships beyond the power of our experience to reckon, but which we know in some fundamental way to be true.” [1] Most of us have had moments like that, when we were thrilled, shocked, or awed by an experience that drew us beyond the merely rational—the splendor of a sunset, the grandeur of mountains, the birth of a child, a Beethoven symphony. The list could be prolonged.

But WHAT is God? An old axiom says, “God is always greater” (Deus semper major)—that is, greater than anything we can imagine, conceive, or express. God cannot be put into a category of things, because God is not one thing among many. God is the “ground of being” for all that is. So we are unable to answer in any satisfactory way the question, “What is God?” None of our answers to the what-question can possibly fit God.

Nevertheless, we have many “names” for God. The Bible is full of them (rock, fortress, shade from the heat, living water, blazing fire, shield, mother, father, etc.). These images function as metaphors, trying to say indirectly and poetically what cannot be said literally and directly. No one of these metaphors is adequate to the reality toward which they point. That’s why there are so many of them. They are suggestive, but cannot be taken literally, and we cannot know to what extent each of them really “fits.” It’s as if the human mind is continually groping after more ways of referring to the nameless and unspeakable Mystery that underlies and fills all things.

WHO is God? This question seems to presuppose that God is personal. “Who” is a word that directs us toward a reality that we could properly address with the word “Thou” (“You”). And Christian believers do dare to address God with this personal pronoun. In fact, they even go further, following the teaching and example of Jesus, and dare to say “Father!”

But we are not to imagine God as a limited person in the way that each human being is. This would be the same kind of mistake as taking literally one of the “names” or metaphors for God. “God is always greater.” Still and all, if one asks “Who is God?” one is looking for a reality that is at least not “sub-personal,” though it may be “trans-personal.”

The “who-ness” of God is discovered only by relating to God personally in prayer. When we try to speak to God, it feels right to say “Thou” or “You.” In the attitude of praying, we enter into a personal relationship with “someone,” not “some thing.”

On the other hand, when we try to speak about God in personal terms, we fumble and fall into paradoxical language. We are embarrassed by the need to refer to God, then, as either “Him” or “Her,” even though we don’t really think that gender is relevant in speaking about God. Our little third-person pronouns are rightly felt to be utterly inadequate when we use them to refer to the One whom we know authentically only in an “I-Thou” relationship.

Whether, then, we try to say “Who” God is or “What” God is, we are left finally in reverent silence, to feel the unutterable Mystery. This is a good and blessed point to reach. But we human beings are reluctant to stay very long in that state of unknowing and wonder.

Although I may not have answered your questions in a satisfactory way, I hope that these reflections may help you to continue to live with those questions.

Faithfully,

The Theologian

[1] Peter Gomes, The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart (New York: William Morrow & Company, 1996), p. 214.

Ask a Theologian: Faith and Questioning

Dear Theologian,

I have a question about “faith.” We are sometimes told, “Just believe!” or “Just have faith!” But what if you are being asked to accept without question some understanding of Christianity that you find questionable or dubious? Does “believing” rule out any questioning or doubt? Does it exclude any use of our intellect? How do I decide what is worthy of belief?

Doubting Thomas

Dear Thomas,

Faith, in the Biblical sense, is to place one’s entire confidence and trust in God alone. Abraham exemplifies this kind of faith, and St. Paul sees the faith of Christians as a continuation of that “Abrahamic” faith. Abraham, he says, believed in “the God ... who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.” And this faith “was reckoned to him as righteousness.” The same kind of faith is exemplified in Christians. “It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead...” (Rom 4:17, 22, 24)

Faith, in this primary and fundamental sense, is not the intellectual acceptance of propositions but rather the act (ever-renewed) of entrusting one’s very self to the God who is beyond all words or images. Only secondarily does “believing” have to do with the doctrines and formulations of the Church.

We can get at the point of your question if we notice the ambiguity of the English word “believe,” which we inevitably use when we want the verb that corresponds to the noun “faith.” “Believe” can, of course, mean “to have firm faith, especially religious faith.” But it can also mean “to accept something as true or real; to suppose, have an opinion, or think.” (American Heritage Dictionary, 3rd ed.)

If by “believing” we mean accepting as true a series of propositions about God and “the things of God,” then there is certainly room for serious intellectual work. All human formulations of divine truth are limited and relative to the cultural situation in which they were devised. To penetrate their deep meaning and to re-state it for a new cultural situation is the never-ending work of theology as an intellectual discipline.

Believers have a right to raise questions about Church doctrine, in order to come to a deeper and more correct understanding of God’s truth. St. Anselm’s concept of theology as “faith seeking understanding” (fides quaerens intellectum) is still valid, nearly a thousand years after he coined the phrase.

Faithfulness to God and to the good news of Jesus Christ appears to demand that we be discriminating and discerning in what we accept as binding. This cannot happen without allowing room for questioning and ongoing theological dialogue and argument. The history of the Church’s dogmatic tradition bears ample witness to this.

With regard to the many and varied styles of theological thinking, preaching and praying which one may encounter among Christians today, there is certainly need for critical appraisal and for discernment of the Spirit of God. Not everyone who urges us to accept his or her understanding of the gospel can automatically claim our whole-hearted assent.

But what about the primary meaning of “believing” ⁠— entrusting our very selves to God? Is there any room here for doubt, questioning, or intellectual activity?

We must recognize that, although we are called to a total trust in God, the degree of our trust (our faith) can vary greatly from hour to hour and day to day. It is a struggle sometimes to believe in God, because of the nature of our life experiences. Hesitation between belief and unbelief (in the primary sense) is sometimes our unavoidable condition.

To suppress all questions or doubts is to become a fanatic, who refuses to consider any criticism or objections. On the other hand, we can never completely rationalize the choice to believe in God.

Jesus’ urgent exhortation “Do not fear. Only believe!” (Mk 5:36) remains valid as the demand for a total surrender to God in trust, hope, and love. Despite our hesitations and inconsistencies, we must always respond to this as fully as we know how. We can perhaps find comfort in the words of the desperate father seeking help for his son: “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mk 9:24)

Faithfully,

The Theologian


The Rev. Dr. Wayne L. Fehr wrote a column for a previous version of the diocesan newsletter called Ask a Theologian. He answered questions from ordinary Christians trying to make sense of their faith. You can find and purchase his book on Tracing the Contours of Faith: Christian Theology for Questioners here. Fr. Fehr’s Ask a Theologian column will appear in the Diomil ENews monthly.

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