Monday, November 26, 2012

The Humility and Generosity of Lincoln

I saw the movie Lincoln over the weekend with some of my extended family. It was my second time seeing the film. I think I was moved even more the second time than the first. This movie captures some of why Abraham Lincoln has been an iconic figure in American history. He was truly a great man.
Among other things, the movie reminds us that politics in a democracy has always been a rough and tumble affair. However, much we night bemoan the current state of American politics, there is no such thing as a 'golden age' in which everyone just got along and cooperated toward a shared vision of the common good. And the movie shows Lincoln himself resorting to unsavory tactics to achieve good ends (on this, David Brooks has some fine observations). Things might or might not be much worse now than they were then (though I do wonder about the effects of contemporary media and the influx of unprecedented amounts of money to skew things).
But, one thing has changed, unless Abraham Lincoln was truly a unique historical figure. The movie ends with the closing lines of Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address, which is itself one of the great political speeches of American history. The movie inspired me to reread the whole of that address (Second Inaugural Address). I am struck by two virtues Lincoln demonstrates that it would be good to see more commonly in contemporary politics. Those virtues are humility and generosity toward opponents. Here are the last two paragraphs:
Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. "Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh." If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all.

Note first, that, though Lincoln seems fairly confident he knows what is right, he almost instinctively qualifies his own 'firmness in the right' with the caveat 'as God gives us to see the right'. Recognizing and naming the uncomfortable fact that both his side and the other 'read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other', Lincoln further affirms that 'The Almighty has His own purposes' acknowledging that those purposes might or might not line up with his own.This admission of partial vision is a fundamental aspect of the virtue of humility.

Such epistemological humility allows Lincoln to entertain the possibility that others might be right – even those who 'dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces'.
Whether such humility was common in Lincoln's day, it has become rare in ours. Instead, the rhetoric, both left and right, would suggest that what is right is so clear that all reasonable people will agree. Which means that those who do not agree must be either unreasonable or nefarious. Thus, it is either impossible or unnecessary to engage them with respect.
But, Lincoln did engage those with whom he disagreed with respect. And with a notable generosity. Allowing for the likelihood that he was not altogether right and that his opponents were not altogether wrong created space for Lincoln to resist malice and extend charity even toward those with whom he was at war.
We would do well to cultivate the virtues of humility and generosity that we too might live with malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Getting off the Fence – Interpreting Scripture

When it comes to making Christian sense of the phenomena of same-sex sexual attraction, much depends on how we read scripture. But, that draws us into a much deeper and broader challenge in the contemporary church. There is a good deal of uncertainty across the church as to how best to engage the scriptures and a loss of confidence in some old assumptions about how to do so. One sign of this is the turn to early Church tradition for guidance among Evangelicals.

Absent a Magisterium , as in the Roman Catholic Church, we are left to make sense of scripture in a context in which there is no straightforward, agreed upon, and authoritative hermeneutic for interpreting the writings we believe to be inspired by God and authoritative for the church. The inevitable result is that faithful, pious Christians often come to different conclusions interpreting the scriptures on a given matter. Even people who basically agree on the authority and inspiration of scripture and how it should be read often come to quite different conclusions on important issues.

We all need to give more attention to the interpretive principles by which we configure scripture such that some themes and passages are given more weight than others. And we all need to practice a good deal more charity and humility toward one another when we disagree.

Before looking at any particular passage of scripture that mentions same-sex sexual relations, it is important to look at what makes for faithful interpretations of scripture in general. I’ve attempted a constructive proposal for engaging scripture elsewhere (see The King or a Fox). Everything that follows should be understood in the context of that series of posts. In this post I want to elaborate on one of the criteria I suggested for interpreting scripture – the Criterion of Love, which is closely related to another, the Criterion of Jesus Christ.

St. Augustine on the double love of God and neighbor

St. Augustine, in his guide to interpreting scripture, argued that the fundamental key to faithful interpretation is Jesus’ summary of the law:

‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. (Matthew 22:38-40)

It is to teach us how to do these two things rightly that we were given the scriptures in the first place. Augustine goes so far as to make this rather startling claim:

So anyone who thinks that he has understood the divine scriptures or any part of them, but cannot by his understanding build up this double love of God and neighbor, has not yet succeeded in understanding them. Anyone who derives from them an idea which is useful for supporting this love but fails to say what the author demonstrably meant in the passage has not made a fatal error, and certainly is not a liar. (On Christian Teaching [De Doctrina Christiana], English trans. R. P. H. Green (New York, Oxford University Press, 1997), 27)

Though this sounds remarkable, the idea that the building up of the double love of God and neighbor is the key for interpreting scripture is at least as well-founded in scripture as is Luther’s insistence that everything be interpreted through the lens of salvation by faith through grace. In fact, Luther, himself, asserted that “faith and love are always to be mistresses of the law.”

Not only does Jesus give us the summary of the law, he applies it himself in a way that was shocking to his contemporaries when he insisted that "The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27).

Paul makes several references to the centrality of Jesus’ summary of the law (cf. Romans 13:8-10, Galatians 5:13-14, Galatians 6:2). And the apostle seems to apply it as a key to discerning moral questions in his first letter to the church in Corinth:

“All things are lawful for me," but not all things are beneficial. "All things are lawful for me," but I will not be dominated by anything.
(1 Corinthians 6:12)

"All things are lawful," but not all things are beneficial. "All things are lawful," but not all things build up.
(1 Corinthians 10:23)

It does not seem particularly ‘revisionist’ to agree with Augustine that interpretations that “build up this double love of God and neighbor” are to be preferred and that the test for whether or not an interpretation is in the ballpark of faithfulness is whether or not it can be demonstrated to do so. And if, as Jesus says, the Sabbath is made for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath; might we entertain that if an interpretation of scripture seems to thwart the flourishing of members of the body of Christ that that interpretation needs to be looked at afresh? And if, as Paul says, the fundamental criteria on moral questions are what is beneficial for Christian freedom and the building up of the body of Christ and individual members of that body, might we ask in the case of Christians who are romantically and sexually attracted to members of the same sex, “What is beneficial? What enables them to not be ‘dominated’? What builds them up? Would the blessing of Same-sex Unions build up the church? Would such unions inherently get in the way of its being built up?" Article XX of the Articles of Religion enjoins us not to "expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another." Might we ask of any interpretation of scripture, "Is it repugnant to the double love of God and neighbor?"

Not simple, sentimental, or easy

The double love of God and neighbor is not simple, sentimental, or easy. To love God requires us to know God – through the witness of the Bible, through worship and prayer, through the witness of tradition and the saints, and through the witness of creation. That also requires continual self-scrutiny lest we construct an image of God that suits us and then love the image we have formed for ourselves. To love our neighbor also requires that we actually come to know our neighbor. That too requires continual self-scrutiny to examine our own resistance to love and our tendency to project onto others what we already think they are or should be as characters of the story of our own making. The double love of God and neighbor requires taking up the cross and denying ourselves.

A Roman Catholic principle of interpretation
Interestingly, the Roman Catholic Church has a similar principle of scriptural interpretation. According to the official teaching body of the Catholic Church, the Pontifical Biblical Commission, Catholic readers of the Scripture have a positive duty to avoid certain sorts of what the authorities call ‘actualization’ of the texts, by which they mean reading ancient texts as referring in a straightforward way to modern realities:

“Clearly to be rejected also is every attempt at actualization set in a direction contrary to evangelical justice and charity, such as, for example, the use of the Bible to justify racial segregation, anti-Semitism or sexism whether on the part of men or of women. Particular attention is necessary... to avoid absolutely any actualization of certain texts of the New Testament which could provoke or reinforce unfavorable attitudes to the Jewish people”. (The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, IV.3)

While there are plausible – maybe even probable – interpretations of scripture ‘contrary to evangelical justice and charity’ they are to be avoided. Interpretations that reflect and reinforce justice and charity are more faithful to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Of course, current official Roman Catholic teaching does not conclude from this that justice and charity rightly understood lead to the ordination of women or the blessing of Same-sex Unions. But, that merely raises the question of how we discern what is just and what is charitable.

What it is and isn't about

If Same-sex Unions can be a faithful state for Christians it is not about ‘inclusion’ which, in and of itself, is an empty concept. It is not merely a matter of declaring that ‘God loves everyone. Period.’ Few Christians would deny that. But it is an insufficiently Christian declaration (see God’s Love is not Enough).  Nor is it about ‘respecting the dignity of every human being’. Of course we should live into that part of the Baptismal Covenant.  But, respect and love do not mean affirming everything we want affirmed.  Sometimes respect and love mean speaking hard truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). Nor is it about sentimentalism or indulgence.

The question, it seems to me, is whether or not entering into a committed, monogamous, permanent Same-sex Union provides a fertile context for the cultivation of redemptive, sanctifying disciplines that lead to deeper love of God and love of neighbor as exemplified by Jesus. It is about pursuing the holiness of God-centered, self-emptying, cross-bearing, other-oriented love incarnated by Jesus Christ and cultivating the disciplines that enable us to embody that love in thought, word, and deed.

Friday, November 9, 2012

What do you want to be, anyway?

A Sermon for All Saints' Sunday

Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-9, Psalm 24, Revelation 21:1-6a, John 11:32-44

“What do you want to be, anyway?”

That is the question a friend asked Thomas Merton not too long after his conversion from atheism to Roman Catholicism. Merton recalls this conversation in his spiritual autobiography, The Seven Story Mountain:

I forget what we were arguing about, but in the end Lax suddenly turned around and asked me the question:

“What do you want to be, anyway?”

I could not say, “I want to be Thomas Merton the well-known writer of all those book reviews in the back pages of the Times Book Review,” or “Thomas Merton the assistant instructor of Freshman English at the New Life Social Institute for Progress and Culture,” so I put the thing on the spiritual plane, where I knew it belonged and said:

            “I don’t know; I guess what I want is to be a good Catholic.”

            “What do you mean, you want to be a good Catholic?”

The explanation I gave was lame enough, and expressed my confusion, and betrayed how little I had really thought about it at all.

Lax did not accept it.

“What you should say” – he told me – “what you should say is that you want to be a saint.”

A saint!  The thought struck me as a little weird.  I said:

“How do you expect me to become a saint?”

“By wanting to,” said Lax simply.

“I can’t be a saint,” I said, “I can’t be a saint.” And my mind darkened with a confusion of realities and unrealities: the knowledge of my own sins, and the false humility which makes men say that they cannot do the things that they must do, cannot reach the level that they must reach: the cowardice that says: “I am satisfied to save my soul, to keep out of mortal sin,” but which means, by those words: “I do not want to give up my sins and my attachments.”

“What do you want to be, anyway?” Why not say that you want to be a saint?

Today we celebrate the Feast of All Saints’ in which we commemorate those exemplary disciples in the Church’s history who have inspired the imagination of Christians. We commemorate those who, as the Wisdom of Solomon says, “In the time of their visitation they shone forth, and ran like sparks through the stubble.” We commemorate all the saints, well known, less well known, unknown, and forgotten. We remember ‘official’ saints like Francis, Clare, Barnabas, Nicholas, Catherine, etc. and more contemporary ‘unofficial’ saints like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Mother Teresa. And we rejoice in believing that we are united with them in the one great communion of the saints.

Why commemorate the saints? It is not to do them any favor. As Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) said,

The saints have no need of honor from us; neither does our devotion add the slightest thing to what is theirs.  Clearly, if we venerate their memory, it serves us, not them. But I tell you, when I think of them, I feel myself inflamed by tremendous yearning.

The saints inspire us. If we let them, they also inflame a tremendous yearning in us to live lives of similar faithfulness, love, and joy. That yearning is the challenge of the saints. We need to be careful not to put them on a pedestal that makes them fantastical and unreal. Otherwise we will miss the challenge of the saints. And here is the challenge: all saints were made of the same stuff as you and me. By God’s grace and their own discipline they became more nearly what each of us could be, what each of us are meant to be – saints.

Of course, like Merton, we are all very aware of our own sin. But, there is also that false humility which makes us say that we cannot do the things that we must do, cannot reach the level that we must reach: the cowardice that says: “I am satisfied with not being any better or worse than most people” but which really means, “I do not want to give up my sins and my attachments.”

But, when we are honest with ourselves we know that that leaves us off balance and keeps us from entering more fully into the love and joy and peace that we believe God desires to pour into every crook and cranny of our lives. And it keeps us from being that love and joy and peace in the world around us.

What do you want to be, anyway? Why not say that you want to be is a saint?

What is a saint? Here is a description from one of my favorite singers, Leonard Cohen:

What is a saint? A saint is someone who has achieved a remote human possibility. It is impossible to say what that possibility is. I think it has something to do with the energy of love. Contact with this energy results in the exercise of a kind of balance in the chaos of existence. A saint does not dissolve the chaos; if he did the world would have changed long ago. I do not think that a saint dissolves the chaos even for himself, for there is something arrogant and warlike in the notion of a man setting the universe in order. It is a kind of balance that is his glory. He rides the drifts like an escaped ski. His course is a caress of the hill.  His track is a drawing of the snow in a moment of its particular arrangement with wind and rock. Something in him so loves the world that he gives himself to the laws of gravity and chance. Far from flying with the angels, he traces with the fidelity of a seismograph needle the state of the solid bloody landscape. His house is dangerous and finite, but he is at home in the world. He can love the shapes of human beings, the fine and twisted shapes of the heart. It is good to have among us such men, such balancing monsters of love.

Balancing monsters of love. What do you want to be, anyway? Why not say that you want to be is a balancing monster of love running like a spark through the stubble?

Frederick Buechner wrote this of saints:

Maybe more than anything else, to be a saint is to know joy. Not happiness that comes and goes with the moments that occasion it, but joy that is always there like an underground spring no matter how dark and terrible the night. To be a saint is to be a little out of one's mind, which is a very good thing to be a little out of from time to time. It is to live a life that is always giving itself away and yet is always full.

What do you want to be, anyway? Why not say that you want to be a little out of you mind, living a life that is always giving itself away and yet always full – full of the joy of God, running like a spark through the stubble?

Thomas Merton, in a different book wrote this about the sanctity that typifies a saint:

Sanctity is not a matter of being less human, but more human. This implies a greater capacity for concern, for suffering, for understanding, for sympathy, and also for humor, for appreciation of the good and beautiful things of life.

What do you want to be, anyway? Why not say that you want to be more human?

Why not? Is it cowardice and false humility? Sin and attachments? Complacency with being ‘less than human’, less than fully alive? When we are honest with ourselves do we not sometimes sense that we are less than fully alive – not fully alive to God, not fully alive to others, not even fully alive to ourselves? I sense it in myself. The saints are those who are more fully alive and they inflame a yearning in us to be similarly alive.

And they challenge us to respond to Jesus calling to us, “Come out and be unbound.” We are like Lazarus. Parts of us are dead and need resurrecting. We all know well enough that there are things shut up in our hearts that would cause a stench if we uncovered them. Sin and attachments bind us like strips of grave cloth.

Jesus stands before us, weeping, desiring to fill is with his life and love and joy and peace. We need only role away the stone and allow him to have his way with us. Diligently practicing the classic spiritual disciplines is how we take away the stone – self-scrutiny and repentance, prayer and fasting, practicing the self-emptying, patient love of Jesus.

This is not about trying to get God to love us more. Through Jesus, we know that God already loves us – however dead we might be. We cannot make God love us more because God already loves us freely and completely. But our sins and our attachments can get in the way of our experiencing that love. It is not that God loves the saints more but that the saints availed themselves more to that love.

Only God can work in us the radical life-giving change in us for which we yearn. Only God can right all that unbalances us. Only God can transform us into balancing monsters of love. Only God can produce in us inner springs of joy and make us more fully human, more fully alive. But, God usually waits for us to take away the stone. If we want it, we can do the things that open us to God’s Holy transforming Spirit. Do we dare take the stone away? Do we dare ascend the hill of the LORD with the saints and stand in his holy place?

Why not say that you want to be is a balancing monster of love running like a spark through the stubble?

Why not say that you want to be a saint?