After that last post, it seems that I should immediately write another one. I do not want to give the impression that I am learning nothing from reading David Bentley Hart’s book, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss. I am enjoying it. I just have some fundamental disagreements.
I am not one to think that trotting out the word “mystery” is a good thing to do, by and large, in theological writing. I have a mentor who instilled in me a profound respect for the word. He did not advise against it, just noted that 99.9% of the time “mystery” is just a sign of intellectual confusion. Hart obviously did not have such a mentor. His writing is not riddled with mystery, but it is used enough to make me cringe. On the other hand, his writing is almost poetic, even while being obviously of the genre of philosophy so I have tried to remain alert to a potential offering in it. And I see a thinker really grappling with great questions and doing so from the perspective of a questioner, not a knower. I like that.
. . . this book is to a great degree a rather personal approach to the question of God. I do not mean that it is subjective or confessional; rather, I mean that it takes the structure of personal experience — not mine particularly, but anyone’s — not only as an authentic way of approaching the mystery of the divine but as powerful evidence of the reality of God (9).
In any other genre of writing, you would not see the idea of mystery as expressive of reality. In on sense of the definition of the word, if it’s a mystery, it’s unknown. Of course it can also be used to define something that is difficult to understand. And I think that’s what Hart’s up to. He inspires me with his following description of his method.
In a sense, the perspective from which I write might vaguely be described as “Platonic.” I start from the conviction that many of the most important things we know are things we know before we speak them; indeed, we know them — though with very little in the way of concepts to make them intelligible to us — even as children, and see them with the greatest immediacy when we look at them with the eyes of innocence (9).
Indeed, it is the this emphasis on experience that compelled me to purchase the book initially. So much of the serious theological literature forgets this point and the result is that theology becomes the distillation of other ancient experiences of God, into propositions for belief, which you accept or deny upon your salvation. Such “theology” has been the ruination of church. I am convinced by such thinkers as John Cobb and Philip Clayton, that we must change theology or witness the end of church.
Their thoughtful members are more aware of the problems with the Christian beliefs that inform their liturgy, creeds, and hymns than of solutions offered by Christian thinkers. They find reasons to continue to be supportive and active, but they are reluctant, or perhaps unable, to encourage others to share Christian beliefs that they themselves find problematic. Even their children are unlikely to be inspired to shape their lives according to these beliefs. As social pressure to take part in church life diminishes, they are likely to drift away. As the future of the institution becomes more uncertain, its leaders typically become more cautious. Controversy seems ever more threatening. To avoid controversy is to avoid facing theological issues. It becomes increasingly difficult to introduce theological discussion into congregations. . . the only form of the oldline church that is worth preserving is the one that is open to all truth and ready to reformulate its faith in light of new learning. Such a church is ready to change its practice to conform to new understanding, but it must do so as a faithful response to the gospel, not as compromise with the world. This can happen authentically only through continuous rethinking and reappropriation of its heritage. In short, it is a major theological undertaking. (John Cobb, “Do Oldline Churches Have a Future?”, 1998).
It feels to me like Hart is trying to be a faithful response to the gospel as it is also responding to 21st century realities. Scientific understandings have exploded beyond the ken of most laypersons to grasp beyond an extremely rudimentary way, and the religions of the world have been forced to interact in ways they never have, leading to hardened exclusivism on the one hand and pure relativism on the other extreme hand. Hart wants to use science and to be a responsible citizen of the world and to be a responsible theologian. That’s a trinity I can get excited about precisely because it might lead to the kind of reappropriation of our heritage that the church requires today.
There are other moments that under my skin in a good way. Here are two:
When I say that atheism is a kind of obliviousness to the obvious, I mean that if one understands what the actual philosophical definition of “God” is in most of the great religious traditions, and if consequently one understands what is logically entailed in denying that there is any God so defined, then one cannot reject the reality of God tout court without embracing an ultimate absurdity (16).
It is true that a great deal of the rhetoric of the new atheism is often just the confessional rote of materialist fundamentalism (which like all fundamentalisms, imagines that in fact it represents the side of reason and truth); but it is also true that the new atheism has sprung up in a garden of contending fundamentalisms. There would not be so many slapdash popular atheist manifestos, in all likelihood, if there were not so many soft and inviting targets out there to provoke them: young earth creationists who believe that the two contradictory cosmogonic myths of the early chapters of Genesis are actually a single documentary account of an event that occurred a little over six millennia ago, and that there really was a Noah who built a giant ark to rescue a compendious menagerie from a universal deluge, or Hindu nationalists who insist that Rama’s Bridge was actually built by Hanuman’s monkeys, and so forth. Here, certainly new atheism has opponents against which it is well matched (24).
I mentioned last week that the Vermont Conference annual meeting at the beginning of June was a success.
One of the successful things about it, from my perspective, was having the Rev. Robin Meyers as a keynote speaker. Meyers has been a clear theological voice over the past decade calling the church to go “underground.”
That’s a purposefully provocative image. What he means by it is too much to tell today — but the nutshell is fairly simple to grasp:
Jesus’s ministry called people to place their trust in God. His call was a return to ancient Jewish insights like “You were once a stranger in a strange land remember that you are God’s and the stranger is too.” Or, relevant to our reading today, “the Earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.” Jesus challenged his hearers to put aside all idolatry — not just the idolatries listed in the writings, but everything that circumvented trust from God.
And for awhile that was the way the church functioned. But it wasn’t long before the church itself became the locus of trust and loyalty. It’s thinking was thinking designed to protect the institution and when that thinking was combined with the such things as popes and property, salaries and pensions, the church had become the very expression of idolatry it had meant to challenge.
An underground church challenges it’s own self image — reforming itself in the attempt to realign its patterns of trust. It is underground because breaking the old patterns creates disturbances with the old alliances. Meyers rues the fact that no one passes around sermons in plain, unmarked manilla envelopes — plain and unmarked so that the NSA won’t track them down. You and I know he doesn’t mean that literally . . . The very fact that this is a joke indicates the kind of challenge the church faces: We have colluded with the NSA. I use that word collude with some consideration.
The whole point of my sermon today is to talk about that collusion.
II. Naboth and the King
The main action here is not centered on Jezebel, despite our fascination with her. She’s a foil. It’s really about a farmer and a King. It’s about power — but the interesting thing is that it’s not just a story of the bald exercise of power — it’s a story about good intentions gone bad because of the usual collusion with power is thwarted. Naboth is supposed to trust in the power of the King — he’s good. He wants the best for Naboth.
We don’t know much about Naboth. He never appears again in the Old Testament after this rather unfortunate incident. For that reason alone we could consider him a commoner. But he’s also a farmer and he’s very naive. Everyone knows that you don’t refuse a king without going underground. Naboth is just a poor farmer with no sophistication and before the week is out, of course, he’s dead.
III. The Unsavory and Simon
In our New Testament story of Simon and the unsavory woman, who is, as usual, unnamed. the issue, similarly, is the issue of failure to collude with the centers of power.
In this case the woman, about whom we know, like Naboth, only enough to say that she’s not really welcome there, enters the house of an official in order to be with Jesus. There is some concern in the air about Jesus’ hanging out with unsavories. The prologue to today’s story makes it all clear — Jesus had been engaged in ministry that caused all kinds of people to take notice. Mostly they were concerned.
Anyway, in walks this uninvited outcast, and instead of blaming her, (an act of collusion with the powers that be) Jesus embraces her, and she him, in an act that anyone around the banquet table would have recognized as an act of devotion as to a god. The message is loud and clear — Simon’s well-prepared and planned out dinner, meant to put him on a pedestal in the eyes of his peers, is overturned by loyalty to God. Jesus and the woman display faith, not to the idols Simon well knows he himself should spurn, but to God. In doing so, they are upsetting the old alliances. They soon will have to go underground. The church will soon have to begin passing around sermons in unmarked envelopes.
In the prologue to this story, John the Baptist is one who does some of the asking about Jesus. John’s in prison. Which is where people who subvert these old alliances end up. And he wonders? Could it be possible? Could it be that the Son of God, the Messiah, the One Who Is To Come, could be an upstart too? Could it be that this messiah figure was going to be powerless too? It would be radical.
IV. The NSA and The Marketplace
Last week, after the leak about the NSA data collection program on all of us, President Obama complained about all of us who were making a stink over it. He said, trust us. If you can’t trust the executive branch and congressional oversight, and the federal judges then we’re in a bunch of trouble.”
I tend to agree with the rather mainstream Thomas Friedman, who wrote in an editorial last week noting that all the people who are making noise about this seem to have forgotten that we live in a different world. That they’re “behaving as if 9/11 never happened — that the only thing we have to fear is government intrusion in our lives, not the intrusion of those who gather in secret cells in Yemen, Afghanistan and Pakistan and plot how to topple our tallest buildings or bring down U.S. airliners with bombs planted inside underwear, tennis shoes or computer printers.”
But I’m not sure the issue is about intrusion so much as it is about whom we trust. Trust in government for the last decade or so has been at an all time low.
But that low is not because we think the government is spying on us. We may think they’re inept or corrupt. But I think the real issue is that we don’t trust government in the way we trust the free market. By it’s very nature, as an institution designed to protect the rights and goods of all people, it should have some issues with people like Ahab who want, in the condemnatory words of the prophet Isaiah, “To join together land with land until there is no room left for the poor.”
Harvard Law professor, Yochai Benkler wrote in last week’s New Republic about this completely ignored aspect of the Snowden debate:
The technology companies named in the PRISM presentation have all denied cooperating with the program, or even knowing about it. What should we believe? We have two options. One is that the companies are telling the truth and that the U.S. government has for seven years hacked into the systems of some of the country’s biggest companies. The other option is that the U.S. government used a combination of secret court orders, promises of immunity, and appeals to patriotism to get technology companies to cooperate. Whichever interpretation you think more likely, there seems little doubt that the NSA program reveals a deep danger caused by the levels of private surveillance that our law permits.
My argument is that we will not trust the government until it begins to act like government. And even then, so deeply do we collude with those companies who have provided all of the information, I’m not sure that we have any choice but to go underground.
Yesterday I had a conversation with someone who’d recently been on a missionary trip to El Salvador. She was uncomfortable about the way in which she and her group of privileged Americans acted — assuming positions of superiority among the natives, spending lots of money, talking loudly, etc.
This is a woman who’s heading underground because her deepest impulse is to be in dialogue with her fellow El Salvadorians. They are she, and she they. She has, in the language of James Baldwin — been taught well. She is examining her society and asking questions.
Talk about going underground is so difficult for us, I think, because it is so hard to imagine that conversation. The church, in fact, has been taught not to ask questions. We’ve been taught that conversation is pointless because revelation is King — because dialogue does not inevitably lead to the conclusion that God is in heaven.
When we collude with the king we “live.” But the question Jesus poses, if we let him, is whether that is the kind of life we really want. Jesus’ example is clear
On Sunday, April 14th, we began a project we’re calling Eye of the Beholder. The basic idea of the project is that all of us have interesting perspectives worth hearing or seeing on
any given Sunday morning experience. In the interest of broadening the conversation we’d like to hear or see your “take” on the worship service. I tried to suggest in my sermon that perhaps the story of Jesus appearing to the disciples was a story designed by the early Christians to restate the main theme for them of resurrection — which is that death not only will not have the last word, but that the troubles and fears of life, the great difficulties we face today, are not solved by any kind of spiritual avoidance of the issues, but by face-to-face, I-Thou encounters.
An ‘empirical Jesus’, to borrow a phrase from our second reading, which is a Jesus so desperately held up by some as the one unique individual who literally rose from the dead, only leads to trouble — only makes face-to-face encounters with other Jesus’, even one’s who are so different from us — impossible and makes realizing the goal of true religion impossible. I named that goal as the point of the text: “We’re all in this together.”
What do you think? How might you depict such a life? Or perhaps you want to make the case that something else is more important in these readings. Using whatever artistic medium you find yourself drawn to, we invite you to create a work of art that we will display in the sanctuary for our last Sunday in June (and leave on display for a month or so). We’ll spend out time on June 30th in worship absorbing that art, revisiting the this great story Saint Thomas and Jesus.
Below are links to a recording of the worship service and to the bulletin which includes all of the texts and readings.
We hope to gather the art projects together for the end of June. If you’re participating in this project, please let us know at the church. It’ll help us plan.
Devotion offered at the State House, January 16, 2013
I am not a fan of Latin in the church. It is a dead language and the church is struggling not to be dead; struggling to be an institution that can be in fruitful dialogue with other viewpoints — not so that it can foist it’s particular ideas of life on others, but so that it can participate in the great adventures of ideas that mark the genius of civilization.
To that end, I was happy to learn a new Latin tag yesterday — audi alteram partem. You lawyers in the house recognize this as a basic principle of legal fairness — literally translated it means, “Hear the other party.” Or, more loosely translated as a prescription, “You must listen to the alternative viewpoint.”
Pip, in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, exclaims at one point that “In the little world in which children have their existence, there is nothing so finely perceived and finely felt as injustice.” It is hard to imagine that Dickens intended that line to apply only to little children. On the contrary, we adults have to recognize that our ideas of what the good consists, and therefore our ideas about proper policy and law conflict with other well-meaning, good people. We must recognize as a result that the old Platonic ideal of harmony, harmony within the soul and harmony within the state, is not an ideal because it is impossible. Something else must animate our public institutions and our inner dialogues. Audi alteram partem, legal scholars have long recognized, serves that role admirably.
Perhaps it seems strange to hear a member of the clergy argue for such a principle. After all, we traffic in absolute truths, right? Even listening to an alternative view, many in my field judge to be anathema. But for two thousand years the judgement of alternative views as ipso facto illegitimate has only led to more injustice and more violence.
This fact alone, should alert us to the privilege all of us should grant, whether Christian or Muslim, Conservative or Liberal, to the idea of justice as procedural. An unjust procedure is unjust everywhere — it is unjust for Pip, it is unjust for you and it is unjust for our enemy. Ideas about the substantive content of justice — that for example, you might reasonably consider a society unjust that allows poverty to perpetuate — differ among well-intended people.
Perhaps I’ve been too serious for too long. Let me close with a humorous look at the corollary to the principle that we must hear the other party — namely the principle that no one should be the judge of their own case. Or, more loosely, that the perception of an unjust procedure is justice not accomplished. In other words, justice most not only be done — it must be perceived to be done.
And here’s how that’s accomplished:
A judge calls the opposing lawyers into his chambers and says, “The reason we’re here is that both you have given me a bribe.” The lawyers squirm in their seats. “You, Alan, have given me $15,000. Phil, you gave me $10,000.”
The judge hands Alan a check for $5,000 and says, “Now you’re even, and I can decide the case solely on its merits.”
Well –I’m certainly not suggesting that anyone here do that. But do, please hear the other side, and hear it well — that in so doing, we move, in the adventure of life, toward a common good.
Goodspeed in your work.
All day Friday, I was holed up in my study writing the bulletin and working on this sermon. I heard the last few seconds of a news cast about a shooting at lunch. I had no idea until I switched on the news at 5 pm that yet another mass shooting had happened that morning.
I am not a put-my-head-under-the-sand kind of guy when it comes to this stuff. But by the time I heard the news, I was glad I hadn’t heard it earlier. It was impossible not to choke out a sob. . . and for people I do not even know. I was glad I had finished this sermon. I won’t preach again until December 30 and I wanted to preach a Christmas Sermon.
I am going to preach that Christmas Sermon. It is not what it was at 4pm on Friday. But it is a Christmas sermon, and I can’t think of what we need more than that at a time like this.
There will be all sorts of news articles and stories about how the holiday for Newtown will be bleak — as though that were news. But if I were the pastor of a church in Newtown, this shooting would not stop us from holding worship on Christmas eve and singing, of all things, “Joy to the World.”
Part of what happens, or should happen every time we talk about Christmas joy, is that we should reflect on the responsibility to which that joy is a response or a reward. And when we do that we inevitably come face to face with a profound realization — We are free agents in a world that can be traumatic, and frightening and miserable. To us is given a choice, by nothing other than the ultimate ground of life itself, to continue in that misery by feeling sorry for ourselves or violent or isolated or we can resolve to live with purposeful goodness, to do justice and to walk humbly in love in all that we do. That’s the responsibility for which joy comes as reward.
After the initial flood of grief and feeling of horror that choked me for a few minutes, I compensated. My left brain took over and my grief and horror turned to anger. For the third time in a month, a high profile public shooting has left our country reeling. And yet what? What have we done? It seems we don’t really care because most of the victims of this violence are minorities and children? Almost 50000 people die violent gun deaths each year in this beautiful country of ours. — 8 children a day, on average.
I can name that anger now in the fine words of Nicholas Kristoff, in whose op ed piece yesterday, I learned that to administrators of that elementary school, knowing they would likely get shot, charged the gunman to try to stop him. Kristoff wrote: ” What do we make of the contrast between heroic teachers who stand up to a gunman and craven, feckless politicians who won’t stand up to the N.R.A.?”
I am not going to use this Christmas sermon to preach about our desperate need for more brave people to stand up to the anti-gun control lobby. As important as that might be. And as in line as it is with the gospel
There’s something else I want us to get about Christmas because it matters so much today, two days after this horror, because it matters today ten days before Christmas, and it’ll matter next month 30 days after Christmas. And that is that unless Christ is a thousand times born in our hearts, Christmas, December 25, means nothing.
Here’s what I mean. Historically speaking the birth of Jesus is important — it has mattered to the history of the world. But for you and for me? The historical event of Christmas what happened and when, does not matter. It doesn’t mathter whether we celebrate it today or next month does it. “Christmas,” is not the point.
Only two of our five Gospel writers (including Thomas) say anything about the event of the birth of Jesus. And what they say does not agree in historical specifics. (We’ll see that next week in the children’s Christmas pageant!) But they absolutely agree on the story.
This story is complete with a whole cast of unlikely characters, starting with a pregnant teenager and her fiance who are too poor to help themselves. The only visitors that Luke records are a couple of terrified shepherds from the nearby fields. This is no high-falutin Christmas in St. Paul’s Cathedral. The story Matthew tells has some immigrants visit and tells of their own immigration to escape persecution.
Matthew’s and especially Luke’s story, re-directs the objects of our fascination away from celebrity culture or from high art or abstract ideas, to the real life of most of us — complete with anxiety and poverty and glamourlessness — to the moment of now. This gospel redirection, this birth narrative upsetting the cart reminds me of something terribly wrong that the famous American author William Faulkner once said — “The writer’s only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one. He has a dream. It anguishes him so much he must get rid of it. He has no peace until then. Everything goes by the board: honor, pride, decency, security, happiness, all, to get the book written. If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is worth any number of old ladies.” Here Faulkner’s idea of art falls so short of the life that that scene in the stable expresses about everything we would really value — humility and honesty, peace, new life, commitment courage and hope, as to be absurd. In the Christmas story, we see that our deepest, most abiding responsibility is to live a life that abides these things.
Except of course that Faulkner’s absurdity would be laughable if it weren’t so widely esteemed and emulated. We live in a culture that wants easy figures to look at on screen, that vaunts high-society over hard work, and humble abodes. We live in an age of fast, sleek, plugged-in and that tells us joy can only be found in the flattest television screen or the shiniest sports car. We live in a culture that values the right to own guns over almost everything else.
This absurdity happens in religion too. A constant temptation, observable through the history of the church, has been to turn the story of a birth meant to mock empire and royal births, into just that. The temptation of the church has been to remove all of the breathing room in that stable, breathing room for peasant and magi, for shepherd and unwed mother, for the leper and the unwanted — to remove it and make it something processed, mechanical, and gilded — and do it violence.
The history of Christianity is a history of turning away from the peasant man, Jesus of Nazareth, who urged people to rethink their lives in the light of his radical call to love, toward a processed Jesuschrist miracle maker and problem solver of our lives. The history of Christianity, sadly, has been about removing the breathing room around Jesus; turning the man whom people had discovered as a window to God, into a set of beliefs to be accepted with a yes or a no. “Yes,” and you don’t need to worry about joy, you’ve got it. “No,” and well, that’s too bad.
Our Advent and Christmas texts speak over again about joy. But unless we can turn from Faulkner’s idea that little people do not matter in the larger picture, unless we can put aside the processed Jesuschrist miracle maker and create some breathing room for the widows and the pregnant teens, open up some space for the dirty, smelly shepherds in the church this joy will be as elusive and short lived as the treasure in the field would be if the farmer sold it.
We began worship this morning by reading about a different farmer. He too had a treasure in his field. But Wendell Berry’s parable is made more understandable because this farmer has a choice: stay in bed, per the doctors orders — and take care of himself (one kind of treasure — the treasure that rusts) or tend to his sheep. In the Dayspring, the farmer gets up out of sick-bed and heads out to the field.
Berry wonders: is this
stubbornness or bravado?
No. Only an ordinary act
of profoundest intimacy in a day
that might have been better. Still
the world persisted in its beauty,
he in his gratitude, and for this
he had most earnestly prayed.
An ordinary act.
In the argument that has ensued, once again, over gun-control, we’ve forgotten this. We get tied up in knots about policy and about whether there is constitutional ground or about the number of guns already out there or about the fact that only criminals will have guns or that only mental illness plays a role. And we’ve forgotten our responsibility to the ordinary — the the knowns and the unknowns alike.
Yes, all of those are true and difficult.
But we are called away from this debate today, to put the breathing spaces back into our narrative. To allow ordinary acts of profoundest intimacy to guide our thinking about the big policy issues around guns we need to be making.
Twenty children were killed on Friday and 6 adults. Eight more on Saturday and eight more today.
For these we earnestly pray.