Tis the season for baptisms, it seems. Three in the last three weeks. Funny how things run in streaks. I like baptism streaks more than funeral streaks.
One of the baptisms I did recently was not really a baptism. It was instead a family gathering, on a weeknight, where we celebrated with AR, a young woman who grew up in the church in the 90’s, the birth of her son, and the gift he is to everyone involved with him. Because it was not done as part of a worship service, with a full worshiping community gathered ’round, we did not call it a baptism. But that is essentially what it was.
This idea that there is an essence behind the things we do, that we can call something essentially the same as something else, comes from the Greeks. Aristotle took Plato’s ideas of the forms that all of us, even with the most minimal background, have heard of, and moved it from grand concepts like beauty and the good, to the individual, the center of the soul and called it, to ti en einai, or “the what it was to be.”
Over the centuries, Christians have had an off-and-on relationship with this idea. That off-and-on relationship, I will suggest is indicative of the need we have to recognize traps in either extreme as it relates to this question of understanding ourselves in relation to an eternal essence, to a ground of being, that is to say, to God.
Philosophers have names for these extremes, and it will be helpful to mention at the outset – nominalism on the one hand and realism on the other. Don’t get frightened by the isms. I’ll try to explain them simply, and move on to why the ideas are relevant to us, without ado.
Nominalism is the idea that the name we give a concrete something has no corresponding universal or abstract value or reality associated with it. (wait) The preeminent nominalist is Humpty Dumpty. Carrol Lewis, perhaps mocking the nominalists, engages Alice in a conversation with Humpty Dumpty about her birthday. Humpty Dumpty makes fun of Alice using the word glory in an odd way. Alice asks him what he means by using the word glory like that.
`When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’
`The question is,’ said Alice, `whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
`The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, `which is to be master – – that’s all.’
This is nominalism, and while it may certainly be argued that Humpty Dumpty is the only completely thoroughgoing nominalist out there, the prevalent philosophy of the modern, secular world is nominalist.
The matter of the relation between church and state is a case in point. Secularists will argue that democracy exists because there is no general aim toward which the state should move. In other words, for the secularist, the purpose of democracy is to test the wind periodically and chart the country’s course ahead. We may not have Humpty Dumpty’s out there, but nominalism is alive and well in the sense that most believe that there is no room in democracy for a spirit of truth. My guess is that a good many of us liberal Christians are nominalists in this sense at least.
Realism, on the other hand, holds to the idea that something is what it is because it corresponds to the way things really are. I also think that most of us, in this room, are realists. We believe, for example that the claims we make about love, about genuineness, about the possibility of community, are worthy claims to be made because they point to something which exists beyond our own making of the claim.
We do not presume to be masters of meaning, but to be discoverers of meaning.
There is a danger here too. In the grand adventure of discovery, we risk, in our excitement, in our passion, in our zealousness, depriving others of that same thrill of discovery by becoming, no longer seekers of meaning but now the guardian of it. I’m talking here about religious radicalism. The belief that democracy exists only in error because there is nothing to vote about – we have the truth, we know what it is, and by hook or by crook, we’ll convince you of it.
It’s a fine line between nominalists who would argue that meaning is what you make of it, with no reference to truth and realists who might argue that they know what the truth is — both become masters of meaning.
I am more and more convinced that of utmost importance to any of us who would attempt to speak of God, or who would desire to worship, as the gospel of John puts it, “in spirit and in truth,” that we do so with a fundamental awareness of what it means to be human; to be a human who can not, nor ever will, have a complete grasp of ultimate matters. In other words, central to our life as people who worship God is the claim that we are fully aware that we may be wrong about who we worship and how. Let’s just call that awareness that lies at the heart of anything we do, whether in work or in worship — fallibilism. We are fallible.
A genuine fallibilism is hard to maintain when you are trying to talk about God, or witness to the power of God in your life, or even when you are worshiping. We deal, in worship, with the enthusiastic tendency to swing worship from exploration and adventure, into a less uncomfortable, more sure venture of ritual and set behaviors. And for an excuse for our calcification, we suggest that to do otherwise is to garner God’s displeasure.
Of course the implicit question behind all of what I’ve said this morning, is whether we can be genuinely fallible? Can we genuinely worship in spirit and in truth and avoid the practice of making claims that are not open for discussion, such as there is no other truth than the truth that Jesus Christ is the only Son of God? Or, and I’m sure you’ve heard this before — “Have you been touched by the spirit?” meaning, are you truly religious like I am?
Since, with Humpty Dumpty, I’ve established a literary theme here’s another one that at first blush seems close to Humpty Dumpty’s insistence that words mean what he wants them to mean. It’s a short poem by Rae Armantrout called “Scumble.” The poem is about words too. But not about how they mean or don’t mean things — but about how they sound. And about the adventures they can take us on. Armantrout calls it a hot poem. Indeed her poem is erotic. It is the eroticism of discovery and play, of desire and of mystery, of union with the other and the reality beyond the word without which the word is meaningless and dull.
What if I were turned on by seemingly innocent words
such as “scumble,” “pinky,” or “extrapolate?”
What if I maneuvered conversation in the hope that
others would pronounce these words?
Perhaps the excitement would come from the way the
other person touched them lightly and carelessly with
What if “of” were such a hot button?
“Scumble of bushes.”
What if there were a hidden pleasure
in calling one thing
by another’s name?
What if, indeed! What if the story of Pentecost that we just read from the Book of Acts was really about this hidden pleasure in calling one thing by another’s name? The hidden pleasure of, as Audre Lourde put it in her essay on the erotic,discovering the power which comes from sharing deeply any pursuit with another person and which forms a bridge between the sharers which can be the basis for understanding much of what is not shared between them.
What if the story of Pentecost is not some rite of passage that a Christian must experience, not some litmus test of being touched by the spirit, but rather an expression of the democratic spirit of genuine discovery? And what if we could take that spirit and build unto it into a community where people are not islands unto themselves but connected, part of the great stream of life.
Well, then we might call it the kingdom.
Perhaps the story of Pentecost might help us to see again that the essence of the beloved community, the kingdom of God, about which Jesus could not stop talking, is given to us in all our various flavors to work out in all our various communities. Is a call to a spirit of genuineness, a spirit led by the power of the erotic, hand in hand with a spirit of fallibilism, into community of genuineness and extraordinary hospitality. Amen.