Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. – Romans 12:9-21
Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. – Mark 10:18
In the knowledge of good and evil [humanity] does not understand [itself] in the reality of the destiny appointed in [its] origin, but rather in [its] own possibilities, [its] possibility of being good or evil. [Human beings know themselves] now as something apart from God, outside God, and this means that [we] now know only [ourselves] and no longer know God at all; for [human beings] can know God only if [we] know only God. The knowledge of good and evil is therefore separation from God. Only against God can [ a person] know good and evil. – Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, pp. 17-18
I sometimes think we are so wedded to certain words and concepts and images because they make it easy to understand the world. In and of itself, such a tendency isn’t bad. We are living in an age when we are bombarded with so much information it has become nearly impossible to filter out the important from the trivial, the relevant from the nonsensical. We need these filters in order to keep our brains from overloading. It becomes more than just habit to apply them. soon, it becomes such a part of who we are that we do it when, perhaps, it might be better to stop filtering and think about what we are reading, or hearing, or seeing, and give it the privilege of actual thought.
I know I’ve written about what I call “the kitten-burning trap” before: A story spreads on the internet of someone burning a kitten or kittens. Everyone bewails the horror of kitten-burning. For some reason, the discussion switches from the horrors of kitten-burning to who and who does not denounce kitten-burning. Not long after this, people who do not denounce kitten-burning are targeted with demands to denounce it; failure to do so is seen as the absence of a moral compass; perhaps the person in question is a closet kitten-burner?
Substitute any alleged moral failing for kitten-burning, and I think the “trap” element becomes clear enough. It should go without saying that kitten-burning is horrible. Indeed, that there are many who do NOT denounce kitten burning testifies not so much to a secret society of kitten burners as it does to those with enough moral sense to understand that even a child would understand how heinous such an act would be. Why waste time and energy denouncing what most folks already understand to be a morally vicious act? Yet, silence is too often understood as consent, whether it’s kitten-burning, the Hindu practice of Sati, or chattel slavery. We descend down spirals of lunacy as some demand a moral stand on something that is obviously horrific, and those with a willingness to allow horrors to speak for themselves become accused of silent, perhaps even active but secret, practicioners of said despicable crime.
In St. Paul’s benedictory comments in his letter to the church in Rome, there is an absolutely beautiful call to live as those saved by Christ. At the very beginning, he writes, “Hate evil; hold fast to what is good”. That, it would seem, trumps any theologians attempt to set to one side the discernment of good and evil as a Christian imperative. After all, how can we hate evil and hold fast to the good if we set to one side the discernment Paul seems to be calling for?
Yet, Jesus makes it clear enough in the Synoptics – the word “good” can only be applied to “God”; he denies it even to himself. What, then, should we do? After all, how often are we told it is precisely the ignorance of good and evil that is that root of so much of our social dysfunction. A staple line in many contemporary horror films, particularly those that feature some kind of demonic entity or character, is a character’s confession that he or she didn’t really know what evil was until the event or person at the center of the film’s plot made itself known to them. The extension, then, sounds clearly enough with ears to hear: We just don’t understand good and evil. Pres. Bush told us that, and the echo chamber sounded it far and near. Liberals were those who failed to call evil by its name, either out of ignorance or complicity, therefore they were either morally deficient or, the usual supposition, morally vicious enough to sympathize with “evil doers”.
To all those who insist “true” or “real” evil is only the presence of something described as demonic, I wonder how they would describe the kidnapping, rape, and brain-washing of nearly a 1,000 women by Nigeria’s Boko-Haram terrorist organization? What about mass graves that dot so much of the world’s landscape, from the site of the World Trade Center through Bosnia-Herzogovina to Cambodia? Are these not mute testimony to evil in the world? What about efforts by elected officials to deny the needy the resources they need to survive? These are just a few of the things I would call “evil”, if I thought the word useful. It doesn’t take coming face-to-face with some poor person possessed by the Devil for me to know “evil”.
Back to Romans. I think it is important to note that St. Paul spends absolutely zero time describing what he means by “evil”. On the contrary, his effort is to exhort and encourage the fledgling Roman Christian congregation to live out of love toward all, even those who persecute them. The problem, it seems, wasn’t an abundance of evil. It was, rather, a lack of good that was part of the problem in the Roman Church. The call to good works demonstrates a need that was not being addressed.
So what about today? Why am I so annoyed by the whole “good versus evil” thing? It isn’t because I secretly wish to encourage antimonianism. That’s just kind of stupid, really. It is, rather, to note that – like the word “community” – the words are so overused they have become meaningless, empty except perhaps by the pet peeves of whoever is using them at any particular time. Part of Bonhoeffer’s description of “good and evil” as “falling away from God” lies in the Biblical story of the Garden, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and Adam, Eve, and the Serpent. This event is often referred to as “the Fall”, the moment humanity broke the most basic covenant God made with Creation – simple obedience. From this flows history in its long, bloody footprints across the globe. Another reason Bonhoeffer insists we set to one side an emphasis on “good” versus “evil” is that, for the Christian, the question is not the simplistic moral choice. Nor is it creating ethical formulas for acting “good”. Rather, the primary ethical duty of the Christian is each day, perhaps more often, to seek the will of God then live it. For some, actions followed under this call might look like evil. Like, say, helping people plot to assassinate their national leader . . .
Whether or not Bonhoeffer was setting up some kind of theological justification for his participation in the Abwehr’s plot against Hitler’s life, his theological position has, from the moment I read it, sounded far more in line with Christian teaching than our too-often abused search for good and evil, for good guys and bad guys, as if being a Christian was like a child’s game of cops and robbers. For example, those women kidnapped by Boko Haram? They were recently rescued by the Nigerian military and are in refugee camps, being tended by therapists and counselors as well as medical professionals. Yet, all insist that, for all it was a good thing the women were rescued from what would have been a life of little more than sexual slavery, they will face all sorts of challenges when they return to the towns, villages, and cities from which they were taken. Women are too often viewed as willing and complicit in their violations in such acts. They could face everything from expulsion from their homes and separation from their families to death by those who see honor killing as the only recourse. So, the kidnapping was evil, sure. Has the rescue been a good thing? What are we, far away and ignorant of so much of the life and mores of Nigerians, to do? Denounce them as evil as well? Is it really that simple?
And the shooting in Texas. . . When a group led by a well-documented anti-Muslim bigot gathers a bunch of people together to draw cartoons that insult the Prophet of Islam, is that good or evil? When Muslims, morally and emotionally exhausted by the constant insults they see and hear and read day in and day out, resort to violence, is that good or evil?
How many more mass graves do we have to uncover before someone demands “Enough?” What if some of those mass graves are in the United States, evidence of our history of warfare and violence against the native peoples? Are we really prepared to admit that we Americans are no better than the Serbs, the Soviets, the Germans of World War II, the Chinese under Mao Te-tsung, or the Khmer Rouge?
What if we spent a moment or two thinking about what is going on in the world, and realized the world is a strange, complicated, contrary place and even the most horrific event might well be far more nuanced than our simple “good and evil” filter tells us?
When I have fears that I may cease to beBefore my pen has gleaned my teeming brain,Before high-pilèd books, in charactery,Hold like rich garners the full ripened grain;When I behold, upon the night’s starred face,Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,And think that I may never live to traceTheir shadows with the magic hand of chance;And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,That I shall never look upon thee more,Never have relish in the faery powerOf unreflecting love—then on the shoreOf the wide world I stand alone, and thinkTill love and fame to nothingness do sink. – John Keats, “When I Have Fears That I May Cease To Be”—–
Lots of folks in my Facebook news feed are asking prayers for Mark Hall, the lead singer of the Contemporary Christian Musical group Casting Crowns. He is having surgery to remove a kidney that is possibly tumorous. Now, obviously, anyone in such a position is in need of prayers. I am certainly not asking we not pray for him. All such persons need to be surrounded by love. This isn’t about whether or not prayers are efficacious or not. Nor is it a particular criticism of the music his band produces. As a matter of fact, they are a pretty typical, bland pop-sounding musical group, with lyrics often rooted in particular Scriptures. Yet, I am also troubled by their lyrics. I know that’s not a cool thing to admit; they are a CCM band that has “crossed over” as they say, attracting all sorts of people to the music who might not otherwise be interested. Their songs are well crafted, with building tension and release, arranged with just the right amount of familiar instruments, at just the right levels. Indeed, I have often wondered how well they do in a concert setting because their studio productions are meticulous, and in some sense flawless.
What troubles me can best be summed up by a consideration of what might otherwise be called their “breakthrough” song – “Voice of Truth”. In the first place, it’s written in the First Person; “I will choose to listen to the Voice of Truth”. In the second place, the narrator of the song pictures himself as various Biblical persons – Peter, David – and wishes he could be as brave or have the faith they exhibited when they, in turn, walked on water and faced Goliath, the Philistine champion. At the end of the day, as moving as the music may be, as much as the well-written lyrics pull the listener in, reminding us that whatever we are called to do comes from “the Voice of Truth”, this is a song about how being a Christian makes an individual strong and brave. It is about Jesus calling us to be heroes, to be that individual who makes a difference. It is, sad to say, as soaked in the individualistic ideas of North American Christianity as so much of our discussions about “religion” are: in many ways, they all come down to whether or not they add meaning to “my” life.
I remember when I realized I faced a drastic existential choice. It was after Lisa had taken her first appointment. I was preparing to go to graduate school at Catholic University of America and study the Philosophy of Science. I had been doing all sorts of reading – Kuhn and Popper, of course; Feyerabend and Lakatos; I even ventured in to reading Rudolf Carnap, a real snoozer, but still necessary – and it occurred to me, at some point, that I was being confronted by a stark choice: I could continue down the path of faith, wherever that might lead; or I could accept that the Universe, far larger, far more complex, far more violent, and most of all far more apathetic to any human concern, existed without meaning or purpose. I could accept that life was a chemical reaction, that consciousness was an emergent characteristic of particular bio-electrical processes in the human brain. Finally, I could accept that when I died, everything just winked out. One second, it’s all there then – POOF! – it’s all gone. There’s not even the consolation of some memory that I might once have been. The only goal in such a Universe is to be, well, me. Any meaning I might assign to my existence, any importance I might give to any action I’ve done was just that – something I’ve assigned, rather than intrinsic to the action itself.
After thinking about this for a bit, I realized that really isn’t that scary a notion. Indeed, I could see great benefit if more people gave up the idea they were part of some cosmic drama, that their lives mattered, that some act they had or were or might well at some future time commit could very well be the difference between a future worth living and some dystopia in which humans scramble about barely able to survive. Life, the world, history, the whole Universe – it just doesn’t work that way, no matter how many stories we tell, no matter how much we wish that our lives make any difference at all, that just the fact of our existence adds meaning to the Universe. Winking out of existence, in particular if one had spent weeks or even months lingering in pain, or perhaps had met some violent end leaving questions about whether or not one’s loved ones were safe, why that had a kind of cold comfort. No more existence, no more worries, love and care are biochemical reactions to particular stimuli we haven’t quite unraveled, and when the machine shuts down, that all shuts down, and we’re food for beetles and bacteria.
The reality, however, was my faith was then and even more so now is rooted not just in a bunch of words I speak on Sundays; it isn’t based upon arguments that someone insists are irrefutable; it isn’t based upon any single thing, but the totality of a series of events, from childhood through early adulthood right up to the present moment. To surrender that faith would be to lie: lie about myself, lie about who I am, lie about things I’ve experienced, things I’ve done, moments during which I’ve experienced what can only be called transcendent.
The other point-of-view, however, had a kind of irresistible pull. I remembered something the late philosopher Richard Rorty wrote (and no, I can’t find it at the moment, even though his works are in my library). Like so much of his writing, it was crisp, clear, and direct: The sentence is so clear: “The world isn’t about anything.” Looking around, it is nearly impossible for me to disagree with that. Oh, we human beings are creatures who, almost desperately, seek to imbue everything from sex to taking a bowel movement with meaning; people see signs and omens everywhere; whole belief systems are predicated upon contradicting the natural reality that there isn’t any there there. Creatures are born, they live, they die. There is tremendous violence in the Universe, with whole galaxies colliding, planets shattering from the gravitational tidal forces, stars going nova and even supernova from it all. Who knows, on some of those planets there might well be creatures, even intelligent creatures, who are aware of what’s happening, and powerless to stop it, just die, even their memory destroyed in a conflagration we can’t even imagine.
Then there are the horrid creatures right here at home: worms that burrow in to our skin, reproduce in our skin, our organs, feeding on us. There are wasps that lay their eggs inside insects; when the eggs hatch, the larvae literally eat their way from the inside out. There are diseases like Ebola, Typhus, Anthrax, Cholera, Dengue Fever, Malaria – killing millions around the world each year while we sit around in our comfortable, First World homes, and worry about non-existent threats from vaccinations against some of these diseases. It all seems . . . well, it certainly doesn’t make much sense, and there are days that the insistence that a single human life is of infinite value just seems a comforting lie we tell ourselves to keep the terror at bay that, in fact, we aren’t even worth the dirt dumped on our corpses.
It took a long while for a particular facet of the Christian faith to penetrate my skull: salvation isn’t about guaranteeing a ride to heaven when we die; going to church isn’t about making sure we earn enough chits to put in the toll booth at the pearly gates. No, the whole thing, from Creation to New Creation – it’s all about God’s Glory. We declare it in our prayers, we insist it lies at the heart of our mission work, we even recall it in the words of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before he died: “Not my will, but yours be done.” For all that, however, we continue to pray and give praise as if this was all about us. Not so much whether or not we’re going to heaven or not, so much as that these are things we do that provide meaning in and for our lives.
And sociologists of religion are pretty clear on this: Religion, ritual, the system of spirits and sacrifices are all about constructing meaning and purpose to human social existence, therefore ratifying the life of the individual. By participating in these activities, our lives are now worth something; we have meaning because these actions have meaning; we have purpose because these actions have particular ends that we declare are beneficial to us, individually and socially.
Except, of course, for Christianity. Because, see, to quote Dietrich Bonhoeffer, when God calls us, we are called to die. I used to think he was being poetic or metaphoric, just as I used to think Jesus was speaking in metaphor when he said the same thing. It took me many years of living, seeing the world around me, praying, and watching the lives of others to realize this was no mere poetic license. It is what it is: Once we say yes to the God whom Jesus Christ called “Father”, once we set our feet on this road even now I traipse down, the weight of my life bearing down upon me, the end is always the same: our death. Oh, we are so quick to make clear that this isn’t “death” in the way it was before the crucifixion and resurrection. This is a death that ends in joy and triumph.
Except, I fail to see where any of that’s guaranteed. God doesn’t call us to be about the work of setting right what we’ve screwed up so badly so that we can get a pat on the head at the end of the day. God calls us to be about the work of setting right what we’ve screwed up because that’s what we were supposed to do in the first place. And none of it, from our first breath to our last, has anything to do with how healthy, wealthy, happy, fulfilled, self-actualized, or otherwise blessed we might be. On the contrary, as I’ve said many times and shall repeat until my last breath: God loves us, but doesn’t care all that much about us. God loves us enough to save us. God doesn’t save us so that we can hold it over other people’s heads, though. God doesn’t save us to relieve us of the burden of meaninglessness that surrounds us in a Universe so enormous we can’t even imagine. God doesn’t save us because we are good and nice and give money to some poor people and we really aren’t racist, I swear. God saves us so that God’s Glory can be achieved, through the tasks assigned to us. We are the tenders of God’s garden, which is this world we’ve been given. That’s our job. Gardening is hard, dirty, sweaty work. Gardening on this sick, polluted rock, with swaths of the ocean no longer inhabitable because chemicals we’ve dumped have robbed them of oxygen; with the climate changing in ways even the initial climate change modelers couldn’t have predicted, and at rates far faster than even the most outlandish models from five years ago suggested; in the midst of wars and hatred and racism and deaths mass and hidden; all this and so much more make doing our jobs that much harder. You ask God, and I’m gonna guess the response will be silence. Not because God doesn’t love us; but because God doesn’t care that much about how put out, or scared, or inconvenienced we might be. This isn’t about hearing the Voice of Truth and facing those Giants. That kind of faith is for wealthy folks whose only worry is others will think well of them.
If you’re a Christian because you’re afraid if you weren’t the whole Universe would cease to have any meaning, and without meaning we’re little different than dogs humping in the park, I suggest you head over to the park. If you’re a Christian because it adds structure and meaning to your life, but beyond that doesn’t impact you all that much, I think you need to head back to the Bible and check out the violence, the sex, the death – the whole thing. Not so much structure and meaning there, unless you think it meaningful that God uses murderers, rapists, and bigots as instruments of the Divine Will. If you are a Christian because it brings with it compassion and love for those in our world who are trodden upon by the powerful, whose lives are less than the cost of simple drugs that can heal, I suggest you join Medicin Sans Frontiers. Being a Christian, taking this Journey to Jerusalem, means stripping oneself of any and all pretense that any of it has anything to do with us. It doesn’t. We have work to do, sure. Tending the Created Garden includes tending all those creatures within it, including other humans. Not out of compassion or sorrow or pity; we are to do it because that is what God calls us to do, we who bear the mark of the crucified upon our hearts and in our lives. That is the only reason that matters. Everything else, the compassion, etc., that’s a by-product of becoming the human being God created you to be. It is no more the source of the work than is boredom or fun or a sense of satisfaction.
All around me, I see things that have, in the past, given meaning and structure to my life. When I try to gather them up, they are as ethereal as dreams, as real as unicorns. I now know that, along with this stone and all the rest of this burden I carry, I have to set before the Cross any notion that what I have done, who I have been, has any meaning or purpose, or any eternal significance. That compassion, that desire to help those in need, the rage for justice in a world filled with violence and death; all these, too, I must set on the ground and accept as not my own, and certainly not anything around which a person should build a life. All there should be is that figure on the cross, broken, bleeding, not so much calling to me over the waves or the screams of the soldiers, a Voice of Truth to embolden me in my journey. No, rather I have to accept that these are what make up the nails that are pounded in to his feet; they helped forged the spear plunged in to his side. The only meaning and structure there is, in the end, is just this – a man hanging on a cross so that I don’t have to care about myself anymore, but can be about God’s work and not worry what any of it has to do with me or my life at all.
Listening to voices from the church’s past is always a delicate balancing act. On the one hand, we always have so much to learn from the experience of the saints who have traveled the road on which we now make our way, resting from their labors in peace. On the other hand, their times and thus their concerns, their points of view, their assumptions, their languages are not our own. We should always be careful when we venture through time; we can very easily, without knowing we’ve done so, changed the very nature of the past by appropriating for the present something that was not meant for us.
Nevertheless, I had been thinking over the previous few weeks of the sermons and speeches of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Last week, in the midst of helping my wife move her office, I rescued from exile my copy of A Testament To Freedom: The Essential Writings Of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Scanning through it, I found parts of a speech given in 1932 at the International Youth Conference of the Universal Christian Council on Life and Work and the World Allicance for Promoting International Friendship through the Churches (quite a mouthful). The meeting was held in Gland, Switzerland on August 29, 1932. The speech, entitled “The Church is Dead”, was, as editors Geoffrey Kelly and F. Burton Nelson note, “pessimistic” in its “inspiring examination of the church’s call to help Europe and the world”. Yet, Bonhoeffer continued that “the Christian cannot sink into pessimism or get overly buoyed up in optimism.”
The World Alliance is the community of those who would hearken to the Lord as they cry fearfully to their lord in the world and in the night, an as they mean not to escape from the world, but to hear in it the call of Christ in faith and obedience, and as they know themselves responsible to the world through this call. It is not the organ of church action, grown weary of meditating upon the Word of God, but it is the church which knows of the sinfulness of the world and of Christianity, which expects all good things from God, and which would be obedient to this God in the world.(pp.109-110)
This radical call to be the church in the world, despite the insistence from the world that, as the title of the speech suggest, “the church is dead”, echoes down the years to us, from a time of totalitarianisms, of war still ravaging Europe and the growing threat of war even then casting a shadow across everything. We in our times are no less conscious of the claim that the church is dead. We are no less pessimistic, even within the churches, that the claim may well be right. We look around at shrinking numbers, at decreased giving, at the irrelevance of so much of what we as the people of God do and say, and we despair for the future, even as the threats we face are far less extreme, and the future in many ways far more congenial than when Bonhoeffer gave his speech. Bonhoeffer continues:
Christ must become present to us in preaching and in the sacraments just as in being the crucified one he has made peace with God and with humanity. The crucified Christ is our peace. [Christ] alone exorcises the idols and the demons. The world trembles only before the cross, bot before us.
And now the cross enters this world out of joint. Christ is not far from the world, not in a distant region, of our existence. He went into the lowest depths of our world, his cross is in the midst of the world. And this cross of Christ now calls wrath and judgment over the world of hate and proclaims peace.(p.110)
The call to let Christ be Christ is a call to the Church to place itself not only at the foot of the cross, but behind it, letting it lead us forward as we bring the love and grace of God to this “world out of joint”. This is no simplistic message. Bonhoeffer is far from naive.
But the Church also knows that there is no peace unless righteousness and truth are preserved. A peace which does damage to righteousness and truth is no peace, and the church of Christ must protest against such peace. There can be a peace which is worse than struggle. But it must be a struggle out of love for the other, a struggle of the spirit, and not of the flesh.(emphasis in original, p.111)
In particular, we United Methodists need to remember that our church struggles are just that – struggles of the spirit, struggles for discernment, struggles for truth and justice in a world that is still, and shall remain, out of joint. The enemy is not war, however, or the terrible toll it brings with it, at least not for us United Methodists. The enemy, rather, is a spiritual sickness that has turned us against one another; has turned us deaf to calls for prayer for one another; has pitted us against one another in a race toward self-righteousness, against the struggle that should happen and toward a far worse struggle that can only leave all of us people called Methodist wounded, heart sick, separated by words and wounds that no appeal to unity in Christ might heal. Ours is the worst kind of struggle – one for truth and righteousness within the Body of Christ itself as it ministers to the world out of joint. For that reason alone, we should heed Bonhoeffer’s call to let Christ be Christ, and celebrate that God makes alive what the world calls dead.
Notice what is absent? No mention of truth, or revelation, or Scripture as inspired or even useful. Jesus is a window to the cosmic soup of love and warm feelings, but there is no indication he is any more special than Gandhi or Steve Jobs. – Rev. Drew McIntyre, “When Progressive Christians Nuke The Fridge”, United Methodist Insight, September 5, 2014
My recent posts regarding the temptation to close the floor of General Conference in 2016 to all but delegates and others with actual business before the body have reminded me, again, that we contemporaries are no less prone to temptation than those from the distant past. The idols we continue to praise include Truth, which carries in its wake the desire to have in our possession something Universal, and a corollary idol I call the primitivist temptation, i.e., the idea that if we somehow arrive at the best understanding of the original Biblical texts, we shall possess Truth in its most pure form, a Truth that is Universal and which can be communicated with clarity and simplicity to others.
One would think that a good course of a survey class in the Scriptures, or even a common sense glance around our neighborhoods, our states, and our world would disabuse us from these temptations. Alas, they are just too seductive. To be in possession of universal Truth, with the clarity and simplicity of those who originally set it forth all those thousands of years ago, this would make us the controllers of the message, those who, like St. Peter, have the Keys to the Kingdom. One of the great gifts of the past generation of protest theologians is the realization that Truth, Universalism, and Primitivism not only are not possessions of the Western Church, but can become demonic, dehumanizing, and a stumbling block to real participation in the life of the Spirit for those for whom the alleged True and Universal message of Jesus does not speak in any relevant way, in any language that makes any sense.
St. John’s Gospel presents the matter of Truth in two key passages. In the first is the statement from Jesus that he is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” In other words, “Truth” is not a thing. It isn’t a series of words or phrases, a set of concepts that either logically flow one from another or correspond in some way yet to be determined with the world in which we live. Truth, rather, for a Christian appealing to St. John’s tradition, is the person of Jesus Christ. Thus it is that Jesus refuses to answer Pontius Pilate when he asks Jesus, “What is truth?”. It is a person who is not grasped and possessed, but rather grasps and possesses us. We are not purveyors of Truth; we are those to whom the Truth has been revealed. As the late philosopher Richard Rorty asked, “What does the claim that a sentence is true add to that sentence?” His answer was that, like Kant’s query regarding the addition of “being” to an already existing thing, it adds nothing at all. I would add, however, that it adds a personal commitment, an element of power and control that other statements, not being True, do not have. As those who possess, guard, and spread Truth, we live in a special relationship to the Universe that others do not.
Being True and bearers of Truth, it follows that our words and concepts are not subject to the vagaries of time and language and social and cultural context. On the contrary, being True means they transcend such merely human realities. Thus “the Gospel” becomes a Thing that is spread regardless of language, of history, of culture. Resistance to this message isn’t that it is meaningless to those who hear it; resistance is the result of sin, or evil, rather than hearing something that makes absolutely no sense. When I read that someone insists their words are not just true (in the trivial sense) but True, I immediately wonder what, precisely, they’re worried about. Is it possible they are so insecure in their beliefs that, unless those beliefs conform in some manner, fashion, or form, to the reality that is the entire Universe, they fall apart?
The matter of primitivism is more a methodological matter. If we contemporaries, through study of the original languages and social and political settings that produced them can come to understand those original texts really meant, the question of hermeneutics, of understanding and appropriation for we moderns, can be set to one side. We no longer have to bridge the gap of centuries, of languages, of cultures, of the heap of interpretation piled on commentary, but like Martin Heidegger can make one giant leap back and understand and know the Truth and its Universality as it was originally conceived. Thus we need not worry about how women were treated in ancient times, or the status of sexual minorities, or national or ethnic conflicts and prejudices; these become part of the Truth of the text, a Truth to which we adhere, Universalized to our contemporary world of very different views, inheritors of two thousand years of human history and all it has wrought.
To admit that Gospel is for all is not to submit to the idols of Truth and the Universal. It is only to say what it says. Making the Gospel intelligible and comprehensible across thousands of years and the variances of language and culture and history is to be Incarnational in our approach to being the Body of Christ in the world. In Philippians, we read that God surrendered all that is Divine and became human. The testimonies of the Gospels show Jesus living with the lowly, serving the outcast, eating with prostitutes and tax collectors and drunkards, bringing a message of hope and life to those who had no hope, and for whom life was a slog through exclusion and dehumanization. God did not become the Universal person bringing universal Truth to all persons in all times and places. The Second Person of the Trinity existed in this particular person, in this time and place, speaking this language, serving these particular people. When St. Paul writes that Christ came in the fullness of time, he means only this: the specificity of the Incarnation is what makes it the Incarnation of this God for these people, that is, the Jews and Gentiles. We cannot escape this specificity, this contingency with appeals to the idols of Truth and Universality ex post facto. The reality of the Incarnation give the lie to the idols of Truth, Universalism, and Primitivism.
Finally, yesterday I noted that Dietrich Bonhoeffer was doing Christian Ethics for a contemporary world that understood the Universe to be finite, curved, and governed by the contradictory laws of General Relativity and quantum mechanics. One limits the extent of our reach to the Universe. The other limits what we can ever know about the most elementary particles that make up our world. Both strip away any pretext to Truth, Universalism, or Primitivism precisely because they always places us in a position of limitation regarding what we can do, what we can know, and how we can know it. When Bonhoeffer casts aside “good and evil” as the criteria of Christian Ethics, demanding instead the continual renewal of our commitment to the life to which we are called, he is doing ethics for just such a world, a world humbled by its understanding that the very fabric of the Universe limits what we can know, how far that knowledge extends, and how we can communicate that knowledge to others. Acknowledging this reality, that our Universe exists in this way rather than a way that allows us mere humans to have and communicate Universal Truth, arrived at through a method that transcends the limitations of time, space and matter, strengthens our commitment to being bearers of the Gospel in the way Jesus was: As these persons in this time and place, speaking to this particular group of persons, to their needs, in words and images they understand. We become an Incarnational Church not when we surrender to the shiny god of Truth. We become an Incarnational Church when we realize we are, like Jesus, being fully human, surrendering any pretense to power and authority, submitting ourselves to the death Christ died in his baptism, in hopes of rising with Christ.
I would suggest that the greatest danger to this tradition today does not come from those who wish to push back with simplistic law-and-order thinking — as dangerous as that can be. The greatest threat comes from assumptions that there is no such thing as divine moral law.
At particularly arrogant times in history, some have scoffed at the moral law and insisted that the very idea of law is nothing more than a set of norms constructed by society. This claim may allow for change, and that is good. But it respects no eternal standard of dignity and can end up sanctioning heinous policies. – Rev. Chris Momany, United Methodist News Service
As I’m old enough to remember the Iran-Contra scandal, back when Presidential scandals were real things, whenever I hear or read someone defending the concept of “higher law”, my mind immediately turns to Fawn Hall, who thought she was above the law of the United States, sneaking classified documents out of the White House and shredding others in service of this higher law. So it was with trepidation indeed that I read Chris Momany’s editorial at The United Methodist News Service. I do not know Rev. Momany’s political or theological leanings – nor do I care all that much – but invoking MLK in defense of the notion of some “higher law” to which human law is accountable is always an interesting exercise. For instance, Momany doesn’t note that Rev. Dr. King and his companions were quite willing to abide by human law even as they protested its unrighteousness, submitting to arrest and jail time. Whether or not one acknowledges such a thing as “higher law” does not, nor has it ever in the tradition from which King drew inspiration, advocated ignoring the possible penalties for defying human law.
I have to admit that Rev. Momany’s piece is puzzling. Writing in defense of Divine Law as the basis for human law is neither new nor interesting. Furthermore, there seems to be little more than the bare assertion that such exists – Momany tosses around not only King, but Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative and Martin Buber (this latter, however, is odd in this context) – without any other goal.
The assertion that positive law is rooted in Divine Law is indeed old, given its most thorough formulation in the works of St. Thomas. Martin Luther, however, made the distinction between Divine Law and Human Law in his Two Kingdoms theory; the appeal the Radical Reformers such as Thomas Muntzer were making to Divine Law to overthrow municipal and human law was anathema to Luther, who wrote repeatedly to Muntzer to submit to human law before things got out of hand. Muntzer, however, was a believer in the supremacy of Divine Law and ended up being burned at the stake.
The idea Momany mentions, that rights are prior to civil society and positive law, our Founders drew from thinkers as various as Montesquieu and John Locke. Ripped out of context, and void of any sensible coherence to a 21st century audience, they are little more than categorical assertions without foundation. Unless, of course, Rev. Momany wants us all to be 17th and 18th century philosophers, completely ignoring four centuries of advances in thought. The growth of positive law is a direct response to the crumbling of the assumptions behind the very categorical statements Momany insists are the basis for “higher law”.
With the establishment of the Church of England, with the Monarch as titular head of the Church, Great Britain established what one author, Roy Jenkins in a biography of William Gladstone, has called “a mild Erastian” compromise. The Church, rather than dominating the state – a theory that extended back to the high middle ages when Popes demanded obeisance from kings and princes – is the state’s servant. The state provides the Church space in which to do its work in exchange for the church (with the exception of archbishops, who served in the House of Lords) staying out of civil affairs. Our tradition, coming from Wesley, is steeped in this kind of via media approach, with the addition, here in the United States, of ideas from Martin Luther regarding the Two Kingdoms. While always politically active, the United Methodist Church and its forebears recognize the supremacy not of Divine Law but of the Constitution’s guarantee of free exercise, provided churches are neither partisan nor in violation of positive statutes when pursuing their ministries (just ask the Latter-Day Saints how their revelation regarding polygamy suddenly changed when that became the stumbling block for Utah statehood).
To argue for a “higher law”, however, offers me the opportunity to quote from one of my favorite passages from Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Now, his Ethics were never complete. Some scholars and those close to him during his lifetime insist they shouldn’t have been published, at least under the pretense of some kind of coherent theological statement. All the same, at the very beginning, Bonhoeffer drops the boom on the whole “moral law” or “higher law” tradition from a Christian perspective:
The knowledge of good and evil seems to be the aim of all ethical reflection. The first task of Christian ethics is to invalidate this knowledge. In launching this attack on the underlying assumptions of all other ethics, Christian ethics stands so completely alone that it becomes questionable whether there is any purpose in speaking of Christian ethics at all. . . .
Already in the possibility of the knowledge of good and evil Christian ethics discerns a falling away from the origin. Man at his origin knows only one thing: God. It is only in the unity of his knowledge of God that he knows of other men, o fthings, and of himself. He knows all things only in God, and God in all things. The knowledge of good and evil shows that he is no longer at one with this origin. . . .
. . . The knowledge of good and evil is therefore separation from God. Only against God can man know good and evil. . . .
The freedom of Jesus is not the arbitrary choice of one amongst innumerable possibilities; it consists on the contrary precisely in the complete simplicity of His action, which is never confronted by a plurality of possibilities, conflicts or alternatives, but always only by one thing. This one thing Jesus calls the will of God. He says that to do this will is His meat. This will of God is His life. He lives and acts not by the knowledge of good and evil but by the will of God. There is only one will of God. In it the origin is recovered; in it there is established the freedom and the simplicity of all action. . . .
The will of God is not a system of rules which is established from the outset; it is something new and different in each different situation in life, and for this reason a man must ever anew examining what the will of God may be.. . . It is no longer a matter of a man’s own knowledge of good and evil, but solely of the living will of God; our knowledge of God’s will is not something over which we ourselves dispose, but it depends solely upon the grace of God, and this grace is and requires to be new every morning. . . . . The voice of the heart is not to be confused with the will of God, nor is any kind of inspiration or any general principle, for the will of God discloses itself ever anew only to him who proves it ever anew. – Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, pp. 17-18, 30, 38
From a Christian perspective, then, there is no “higher law”. There is only and ever the pursuit of the will of God, not an eternal thing, but something that changes each day, as our circumstances change. Whether he realized it or not, Bonhoeffer was doing ethics for a universe in which entropy and quantum mechanics dominate our material reality. The very idea of some eternal law that exists in all times and places and to which especially we Christians should adhere flies in the very face of the call of Christian Discipleship, which it always and only to seek the will of God each day, in each circumstance of life.
Finally, what would a post of this title be without the following?
Sometimes, a person can get so caught up in controversy that it’s easy to forget that most folks avoid it like the plague, far preferring to stay focused on their own lives, their own plans, their own concerns. I think I am not immune to this, thus my recent silence. To be honest, I certainly receive praise and hits for writing about controversial matters. Which creates a trap, doesn’t it? Writing about mundane, workaday things doesn’t attract attention. Being a voice in a controversy, however, certainly does.
Yet, as the words to the “Vigilate” say: “I say to you: Watch”. This is, or should be, what all of us are doing. The words to Byrd’s motet come from parable of Jesus, as well as some sayings, in which he advises his disciples always to be ready, to wait and watch, to keep their lamps ready, because the time of accounting may be 5 minutes away, or five thousand years, but always always always be ready. Watch. Being distracted by controversy, even an important one like justice within the denomination as well as in our words and pastoral deeds to the world, is not watching.
Yet, should one be interested, the United Methodist Church is busy. From the spreading Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa, to the ongoing troubles between Russia and Ukraine; from continuing to push for justice, including repentance, in our relations to the Native peoples of this continent to helping out those lost in American detention camps because our national discussion on immigration is a joke; the United Methodist Church is there, living the Gospel, making disciples, working for peace and justice and life. You can read about all these stories of the United Methodist Church being church by clicking the link above. We continue our work in the world, for the world, out of a faith that believes God loves this creation; that’s God’s intention is the salvation and healing and transformation of all creation; that we are the vital link, the Body of Christ alive to and in the world for the sake of the glory of God. It is the people in the pews who volunteer their time and effort, who give generously to support these and so many other ministries here and around the world. It is the quilters of Christ UMC in Rockford, IL who present their creations to be blessed to God’s service. It is the thousands of people, young and old, working at pantries and soup kitchens and food banks to help keep the hungry fed, to let those our society calls “moochers” that they are people, beloved and of infinite worth. It is the folks who visit the elderly in the nursing homes, reminding them they are still alive. It is our United Methodist schools and hospitals and youth programs, reaching all sorts of populations in need of the simple Word that they are loved, they are not forgotten, they are a part of God’s plan for a transformed world.
In all the noise and bluster coming from so many, including me, it is far too easy to forget the mundane work of loving the world, of making disciples for its transformation, continues, and will continue. Because, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer noted almost a century ago, the Church is people living in loving community through the grace of Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. The Church is not structures or laws. At the end of the day, if we do not and cannot affirm this fundamental truth of faith, that is the day the United Methodist Church ceases to be the church. Thankfully, that day has not yet arrived and so we go about our affairs, the noise of controversy just a distant, dim hum of noise in the midst of praise.