Some personal thoughts on the Theological Issues
listed by Carole Burton

by Tony Copple
6 April 1998

Throughout the debate arising from remarks made to the press by the moderator of the United Church, few in the church at large have made statements of what they believe, as Bill Phipps did. Thereís a risk of being shot down in flames (as he was by many). It is not the norm for United Church ministers to proclaim beliefs; they prefer to discuss Christian-based philosophy and behaviour. Helpful though this is, I donít go to church primarily to learn philosophy. I go to meet God and Jesus. I want to understand the thoughts, wishes and nature of God. I like to be influenced by great Christian evangelists like Graham and Palau, to listen to those theologians who are passionate about their faith, and to hear what my minister believes.

Here are my core beliefs. Shoot them down if you wish. They are an amalgam of the beliefs of others that have seemed compelling to me, embellished by my own study and discussion. I am conscious that my United Church friends have been taught differently from me, and part of my struggle is to determine whether the differences are in essentials (where we should have unity) or non-essentials (where we should show charity). I came to the United Church in 1987 when I immigrated from UK where I was in the Church of England.

I have no formal theological training. For information on how I came to be where I am now, spiritually, refer to my faith journey. I donít think that detailed knowledge of doctrine is a prerequisite to giving oneís life to the Lord. Detailed doctrinal analysis reminds me of the investigation of the subtleties behind the words of John Lennon and Bob Dylan, both of whom indicated that such investigation will not turn up much of value. Far better just to enjoy the songs. With those provisos, which should discourage you to read on if you are looking for learned or scholarly answers, let me give some feelings from the heart on some of the Theological Issues. I tend to look for logic rather than gut feel or imaginative meanderings and see God as the creator scientist rather than science refuting God

Where I make a statement, it is my belief. In the interest of minimizing keystrokes I wonít be saying "this is my belief" every time. If you believe something else, please donít feel I am arrogantly stating as a fact what can only be my personal belief. However, I also believe God gives me insights sufficient for this purpose, because he ensures all things to work together for the good of those who love him. As I wrote the pieces below, I did not struggle but more allowed thoughts to enter my mind following prayer.

At the end of it all, however, it will still be far better just to enjoy Godís love than to study it.

1. The Transcendence of God.
God existed before the big bang and his thoughts and power resulted in the creation, which began then and continues today throughout the universe. God is not synonymous with the material order; he devised it and the laws that govern it, including the laws of evolution., but he stands apart from it. Having set the majestic clockwork in motion, God lets it run in accordance with his physical laws. God does not always take control over individual events. I can conceive of no possibility that the untold millions of miracles that make up the universe - both living things and inorganic material - were the result of chance. And the evidence of activity by God in the world around us is an everyday experience. He loves his creations and intervenes continually when asked, and particularly when asked as a prayer of agreement by small groups of people who love him praying together. In the light of this, itís not hard to believe that he put the whole thing together. In fact it would be difficult to conceive of him at work today in a universe that had come to be through some other non-supernatural sequence of events. Why would he bother?

2. The Nature of Human Beings
We are not divine in the way the Trinity is divine. There is only one God. We are children of God and our souls will be with him in the afterlife if we accept him as saviour. That is immortality, which is different from being divine. Jesus stands at each of our hearts and knocks, and we have the choice of inviting him in to dwell with us, or of rejecting him. If we have him dwelling in us, we feel him with us throughout our waking moments - and he may communicate with us during our sleeping moments. It is like a continuous prayer, talking with our heavenly father through the grace of Jesus. With God within, we feel truly free and truly normal, perhaps for the first time in our lives - a strange statistic but one that many can attest to. Itís analogous to having a nurse for our bodily health needs, but God meets our spiritual needs, and will meet all our needs if we ask him and if they are in line with his purpose. He hears our every word of prayer, and always answers, so formulate your prayers with care and precision. If he does not respond, this is still an answer. If your child asked for heroin and you did not give it, you have well responded We donít ask for material things, but we can ask for wisdom and guidance which can benefit us in material ways. He wants us to be supremely happy, so that we can help him fulfill his purpose here. In formulating prayers, remember that child of God who has no food and no money to buy it will not be very happy, and will not be able to fulfill anyoneís purpose, let alone Godís.

3. Is God primarily transcendent and only secondarily immanent?
God invites us to let him in, that he dwell in us. I like to think of this as a hologram: there is a representation of God in my heart (once I have invited him in) that, given the technology, has the necessary data to describe God in the universe. He made us in his image, and it is not stated that this is a physical image only.

As a reflection of this, we are also invited to dwell in God - again: our choice. He created us and loves us no less than he asks us to love him, so he has us in his heart. This does not make us divine any more than it makes him mortal, but it enhances the possibilities for communication. We are children of God. As parents of our own children, we keep them perpetually in our hearts whatever they may do, say, become; we have no choice.

4. Do we need atonement for sin?
This question goes to the heart of right and wrong, the cornerstone of our morality and legal systems. God's purpose in sending his son to live and die as a human included the provision of atonement to cement the difference between right and wrong in our consciousness. In the allegory of Adam, Eve and original sin, mankind became flawed, seduced by the devil. If we accept the principles of good and evil, as handed down to Moses, we should accept that sin separates us from God. It also differentiates us from Jesus, the only man without sin. Godís purposes in sending Jesus were to show us the ideals to strive for, and to give us a way of atoning when we fail to meet those ideals. The alternatives are anarchy and chaos, and the supremacy of the devil. God wanted his creations to have free will, but in giving it us (the act illustrated by the Adam and Eve story) we lost our innocence and he knew he would have to give the remedy to those who sought it. The remedy was nothing less than his own sonís experiencing a cruel death and separation from God, which is a definition of hell. "God gave the life of God for me" (Bishop Tutu). On the cross, Jesus lost for a time the link with the father (Why have you forsaken me?), regained at the moment of his temporary death. Was God cruel to put Jesus through the supreme pain of hell? In this unique act, together with its logical follow-up, the resurrection, he sparked a movement that has a third of the world's population following his moral leadership 2,000 years later. Nothing less would have been strong enough to turn the hearts of man.

Would Jesus have had to go through the worst torture known to man for nothing? Is sin a serious problem that we must deal with if we are to dwell with Christ in this world and the next? The questions are synonymous. Under the concept of the Trinity, what God expected his son to go through, he went through himself for us.

5. Is Jesus really divine, the son of God, God?
Jesus was not just a human being with divine tendencies. You canít be partially divine. He was God!!!! He lived with mankind for 33 years 2000 years ago. God had created a universe where his primary project, mankind, made in his own image, had been given free will to do good or evil; to follow the laws that he gave them, or not. Unfortunately, most preferred to disregard the laws. Godís answer was to manifest himself in human form to be an example of how to live. God had planned his earthly visitation from the beginning and described it in the scriptures that he inspired men to write. He not only put words into the prophetís mouths, he also may have encoded messages in the letters of the Hebrew script, using complex algorithms that list names and events that would occur in the future. Only in the present time have we been able to decypher these secret codes.

Jesus was not (as a human) aware from childhood that he was a manifestation of God. He was fully human, with doubts, fears and temptations. He fully experienced being human. On the cross, he experienced hell as separation from God. Yet throughout his life he had such communion with God (again, showing us how to live) that in moments of inspiration he knew that He and the Father were one. He had studied the scriptures and understood the significance of their fulfillment in his life. On the cross, after experiencing hell, he told the thief that he would be with him in paradise that day. Only after the resurrection will Jesus have constantly and continuously been fully cognizant of his own divinity.

It is the times when he was not fully aware of this, during his life, that have made the concept of the Trinity difficult for some to understand. Because he spoke to his father, some have felt that he cannot be one with the father. The above explains how this can be, and yet he is indeed synonymous with the Father. The Trinity is a device that helps us understand the nature of the one God plus two disguises.

6. The place of Nature - The Environment and Animals
I love my animals. God is love. I see aspects of some of Jesusí preaching in the unconditional love of my animals. I believe Godís purpose in creation was to perpetrate a universal life force, evolution, which brought forth animals before mankind, but he knew what the possibilities were, and enjoyed the pleasure that animals would give to humans. He foresaw the affection of dogs for their human friends, and created them to show such affection. He knew that there would be times in our lives when it would be the only love we could get. He even made that love therapeutic in the treatment of human disease.

This does not mean that animals have souls that survive death. Animals donít have the cognitive powers to distinguish right from wrong beyond what brings reward or pain, or to undertake activities much removed from their instinctive tendencies. From amoebae to cocker spaniels (the maximum love breed), they live their lives and thatís the end. God made them as a necessary part of the integrated environment, but he reserved immortality for those he created in his image.

The environment is our responsibility to preserve for God and future generations. It is given for our delectation and we are not part of it, but everything we do or achieve is influenced by it. We let it decay at our peril. The animals, the forest, the oceans and the mountains are a salute to his awesome creative powers. We do well to study and enjoy them. We live in the environment that evolves from his creation, but we are not one with the environment. Indeed, all the evidence is that we are destroying it.

7. Do we live only one life on earth?
Yes. See Hebrews 9:27

8. Is Evil a reality In his authoritative book, People of the Lie, J.Scott Peck gives descriptions of evil people among us. His professional encounters with such people are convincing. It is as if they have been insulated throughout life from any concern for others, and they are compelled to destroy those they hate. Hate is the goal of evil, just as loving one another is the goal of Christianity and the eleventh commandment.

If we accept the reality of Jesus, we should logically accept the reality of the devil, just as he did in the dessert. I think of the devil as an immortal spirit of wickedness, and the sworn enemy of God. The greatest mysteries of the universe are only detectable by their effects (gravity, God, the Devil). Yet all three have incalculable effects on mankind, whether or not mankind accepts them.

The more obvious manifestations of the devil can be seen in the fast growing fascination with the occult and satanism, with spiritualism, healing that is not from God, fortune telling, horoscopes, perpetrators of computer viruses, and religious cults. The devil is very sensitive to human needs for something to believe in, and does all things possible to satisfy them before God does.

The big question is, can our transgressions be laid at the feet of the devil, as Eve did, or should we take full responsibility for them. Perhaps a definition of Christianity might be "Continually avoiding and withstanding the devil so as to be able to lead purer lives." However, just as taking sugar in coffee and eating hot dogs becomes objectionable a few weeks after making the health switch, the supreme enveloping love of God demonstrated through Jesus makes the straight and narrow more than palatable, and in salvation makes spiritual hot dogs like cheating your neighbour or the government unpleasant and unattractive.

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Matters of Faith