Saturday, November 24, 2012

Not Sure Dedication & Acknowlgements

         Publishing a book is very exciting. The process is also complicated and busy. Sometimes stuff gets lost along the way. When Eerdmans published my book, Not Sure, somehow the Dedication and Acknowledgements were left out of the book. Eerdmans has promised to include them in future printings. For some reason it occurred to me today that I could at least post these items on my blog. I always find dedications and acknowledgements interesting, because they say something about the author's universe not directly addressed in the book. They are a peek at what Nick Wolterstorff once called "the world behind the work." So, here's a list of some people who matter in my life!

Dedication for Not Sure: A Pastor's Journey from Faith to Doubt

For William Suk, David Suk, Mariya Meskienyar and Gillian Kupakuwana.


            I first thought I might write about how faith changed through history while I was editor-in-chief of The Banner, magazine of the Christian Reformed Church. My time there was intellectually stimulating, but also very instructive for me as a writer. My friends at The Banner were great critics and encouraged me to keep on writing after I moved on. They were a delight to work with. I wonder what I would have done without Joyce Kane, Jena VanderPloeg, Malcolm McBryde, Gary Mulder, and Tim Postuma.
Since then many people offered their support, insight, and helpful criticism. A few people, however, stepped forward to help in ways that were especially gracious and wise. While completing my PhD at Wayne State University, I commuted from Grand Rapids, MI to Detroit, and often stayed overnight with Don and Elaine Postema. We talked a lot about my studies, about the church, and about the heart of faith, usually over a glass of good sherry. I miss those days. They were more than just friends, really; they were wise surrogate parents. Lou Smedes met with me several times during my tenure as editor. His gift was being able to read between the lines of my editorials. He recognized my struggles and reached out to me with empathy, which was wonderful--but also with understanding, which I did not expect. He was a wonderful guide to the world of both doubt and faith, and encouraged me to make my own journey part of the story. Mark and Lori Vermaire are great friends who were very hospitable to Irene and I when we were far from home and I was struggling with the issues raised in this book. Bernard Brock, my advisor at Wayne State University, became a good friend and confidant. I last met him, before he passed away, in Denver while Irene and I were on our trip around North America. Our discussions about Kenneth Burke's ideas about the rhetoric of religion were very formative for this book. While I was president of the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto, I sat in on a seminar on Charles Taylor's book A Secular Age that was taught by Ron Kuipers. I learned a lot that was helpful for this book.
            Several people read partial or complete drafts of this book and offered helpful advice. One of them, Sophie Vandenberg used to write me long letters at The Banner in which she always asked me how the Reformation was going in Grand Rapids. She read an early version of this manuscript and helped me clarify my thinking a lot. Richard Middleton also read a few early chapters. While he commented on quite a few matters that were helpful, he saved me from making mistakes related to Canaanite and Persian religion. The proof of that is that I took all that out!
Nick Overduin is my best friend and so the fact that he was not only willing to read my book, but offer honest advice was a great gift. But we have also talked about the issues in this book a lot over the past few years, and those conversations helped crystallize my thinking and get it down on paper. Nandy Heule read a late version of the manuscript from the perspective of a pew-sitter who loves the church, and she saved me from many infelicities.
            My mom, Jane Suk, taught me a lot about how to hang on to what is important while letting go of what hinders.
My sons William and David offered me encouragement the whole way through. Faith has played an important part of their lives, too. I credit their honesty with me about their faith journeys, and their continual willingness to talk about their doubts, as well, for the get up and go it took me to finish this book.
Finally, Irene Oudyk-Suk, my wife and the love of my life, listened to me read chapter and verse of this book at least twice. She offered many suggestions along the way, argued with what I wrote when it was the right thing to do, and has always put up with my wavering faith and wanderlust.
While all of these friends and family members helped me, each in their own way, to finish the book, none of them are responsible for any of its weaknesses or errors. Those are all mine.

Monday, November 19, 2012

A Unitarian with Trinitarian Tendencies

           I’m getting used to being a pastor in the United Church of Canada. This denomination is clearly much more liberal than the Christian Reformed Church I spent most of my life in. My particular congregation, Lawrence Park Community Church, sort of puts an exclamation mark behind the “more liberal,” by describing itself on its webpage as “united, unlimited, and unorthodox.”

            Being “un-,” has had a bit of traction for a while now—at least since 7 Up branded itself as the Uncola, I suppose. I’m reading a book, now, entitled, “Unmarketing: Stop Marketing, Start Engaging,” by Scott Stratton. Still, before I joined the United Church, it was a stretch for me to think of myself as unorthodox.

            Then, a few weeks ago, someone asked me about the Trinity. What did I think of the Trinity? How would I explain it? And—a bit to my surprise—I answered her, “Well, I’m not sure anymore. I guess I’m a Unitarian with Trinitarian tendencies!”

            I’m not sure where that came from. The person who asked me wasn’t having heart-to-heart conversation. We were playing at theology. But there it was. Very unorthodox. Maybe my church’s billboard fits!

            I don’t mean to be flippant in my comments about the Trinity, even though I do think that theology ought to have something of a playground feel to it. But usually, people take getting it right when it comes to theology much too seriously. Or they want to get it right for questionable motives. Take, for example, Constantine, the Emperor of Rome, on both counts. He convened one of the earliest worldwide councils to settle the question of the Trinity. Christians had been talking about the concept for three hundred years, and had not come to a consensus. The discussion got a bit heated and threatened to split the church into competing camps. Constantine, who became a Christian in large measure in order to unify his empire around religion, didn’t want to see a schism lay his plans waste. So, to keep the peace in his empire, he insisted on a single definition. Constantine then used his political power to force the answer he liked best and got the political result he wanted. Most of the church has held that answer sacrosanct ever since, even though the Empire for which the answer was crafted declined and fell sixteen hundred years ago!

            Anyway, as I was driving home after my friendly discussion about the Trinity, another related question occurred to me. Why, exactly, is it so critical that we get this concept right? The church got by just talking about it, rather than insisting on an answer, for more than 300 years. And what could it matter to God—especially a loving God, if we didn’t get it exactly right? To use an analogy (talk about God is mostly analogical, after all), if someone mistakes me for the father of a young man who is actually my nephew; or if I mistake someone I’ve just met at my Rotary club for another person altogether when I meet her on the street, what real harm is done? None. In both cases, having made a mistake about someone’s identity, we act like adults. We smile, correct each other, make small talk, and go our separate ways.

            What is more, we’re talking about God, here. Mistakes are expected. I learned early in seminary that even if the word isn’t very familiar to us, God is, in important respects “ineffable,” or unknowable. Considering that humans are a single species of life among as many as eight million other species on earth; given that the earth is a tiny speck of a planet on the edge of an unimaginably large cosmos; given that that cosmos is some ten or twelve billion years old and God has presumably been here and there the whole time; given that by most accounts God set all this in motion, and is eternal and omnipotent and omnipresent and on and on, how are we ever going to “get” God "right" anyway?

            So we speak about God using analogies we find in scripture or make up ourselves. He is like a rock, or a mother, or a shepherd, or a burning bush. Or we know something of God on account of the things that scripture tells us God has done.

            But let’s face it. Scripture doesn’t take a keen interest in helping us understand who God is in and of himself. We don’t get much by way of divine ontology. In philosophy, ontology is the study of “being.” It is a big deal. Ironically, most philosophers can’t agree with each other on human ontology. Makes trying to understand divine ontology seem like aiming high.

            Nevertheless, we insist that God is three persons, but only one God. Like a church is many persons but one church. That, at least, is the “social trinity” explanation. There are many others, most judged heretical: monarchianism, adoptionism, Arianism. Even a brief description of these views would involve saying much more about them than the Bible says about the Trinity in any one place (or altogether).

            The Bible, however, doesn’t spend much time on any of this. When it comes to whom he or she (both are anthropomorphic analogies, of course) is, God says, enigmatically, “I am who I am.” Or something like that—the Hebrew is hard to translate.

            So perhaps we ought to take a hint from the Bible on this. It isn’t that important that we get it right. If it was, God would have given us more than sporadic clues—God might have actually given us a book or two or at least several chapters that nailed the matter. But God didn’t.

            So, I’ve given up trying to convince people that the Trinity is exactly this or that. I’ve not given up on the Spirit or on Jesus or on God. But when I talk on how they are related to each other I’m going to give the dearth of scripture and its ambiguity on this topic a lot of respect; I’m going to take a hint from scripture’s lack of interest in the matter. And I’m going to go easy on strong assertions; I’m going to enjoy my conversations rather than pick a fight. I’m going to reread Boethius and Augustine for the fun of it. I’m going to smile at assertions, based on otherwise outmoded classical philosophy, that God consists of substance or essence. I’m going to wonder aloud rather than define terms.

            And when people ask me about it, I’ll say I’m playing at being an unorthodox Unitarian—that is, a Unitarian with Trinitarian tendencies.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Remembering My Boer Relative's Execution

            This past Sunday my church commemorated Remembrance Day, and that brought a story to mind.

            Many years ago, a relative of mine—my grandfather’s cousin, and so my first cousin three times removed—enlisted to fight in the Boer War, in Southern Africa. The Boer War was the first war that Canadians went overseas to fight. They did so for patriotism, for Empire, and for King, though probably not so much for Sir Wilfred Laurier, the Canadian Prime Minister at the time. Laurier would only send volunteers to South Africa because he didn’t want to offend Quebecers who thought fighting a war for England halfway around the world was just plain stupid. Maybe my fellow Canadians were right.

            The thing is, my grandfather’s cousin didn’t fight for the Canadians or the British. Pieter Schuil was a Dutchman who volunteered to fight for the Boers in a fit of righteous indignation at what the British were doing to the Boers. Tragically, Pieter was ultimately executed by firing squad. I have a letter written to Pieter’s parents, in Dutch, by the English Chaplain who prayed with Pieter on that last day, both on bended knee, Pieter with a Bible in his hands.

            There is more to Pieter’s story. It seems that he may have been unjustly executed, though this is disputed. The British claimed that while carrying a white flag, he came toward the British lines, and then suddenly lowered the gun and started shooting. At his court marshal hearing, Pieter claimed that it was no flag of truce, but just a hankie tied to his gun for no reason in particular, and that he never approached the English lines. He had been unhorsed, and was simply caught up in the British advance.

            And there is more yet to the story. This was a war for empire in its worst sense. The Boers had set up two small independent countries to get away from British rule in the Cape. What is more, they didn’t ask the Africans, whose land they conquered, for permission to set up those countries. After gold and diamonds were discovered in the one of little Boer states--which had made peace with Britain earlier--the British attacked in order to add the Boer territory to their own. It was an imperialistic land grab for the empire. Again, no one asked any Africans for their permission.

            When the British regulars defeated the Boer armies, the Boers refused to surrender and engaged in guerrilla warfare. The British responded by pretty much burning down every Boer farm they could find, inventing concentration camps, and then filling them not merely with soldiers but with women and children from the burned out farms. At least 20,000 Boers and an equal number of Africans charged with feeding the Boers died of hunger and disease in the camps. Pictures from the camps look eerily like pictures from Nazi concentration camps 40 years later. It was a dirty war that brought no honor to England, the Boers, or Canada.

            An interesting personal footnote is that forty years later, after the Second World War, my Shona daughter-in-law’s grandfather, a wealthy African cattle rancher, had all his land expropriated by the British so that they could give it to returning war veterans. Without land to range and feed his cattle, he sold most of his heard at a huge loss and became a refugee in what was then Rhodesia. No one ever asked him what he thought of the Boer War or the two World Wars. His descendants mostly grew up poor and landless and angry that white invaders had dispossessed them of everything they owned.

            War is an ugly business. So what do I do on Remembrance Day? Should I remember my family members who died at war, even if they fought on the losing side? Or when they fought for mistaken ideals? Or should I remember only Canada’s heroes, young men and women who fought with honor and courage, even if the wars they fought were sometimes unjust? Or should I have preached a sermon on how all war is hell and how we all ought to work like angels to make sure we don’t fall into another? After all, as Jesus once said, those who live by the sword will die by the sword, and “Love your enemies,” and “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.”

            And, by the way, who exactly is calling Christians children of God these days, anyway?