Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Faith's Twin - #3

Wondrous Worker of Wonders,
I praise you, not alone for what has been, or for what is,
but for what is yet to be,
for you are gracious beyond all telling of it.
I praise you that out of the turbulence of my life
a kingdom is coming, is being shaped even now
out of my slivers of loving, my bits of trusting, my sprigs of hoping,
my tootles of laughing, my drips of crying, my smidgens of worshiping;
that out of my songs and struggles, out my griefs and triumphs,
I am gathered up and saved,
for you are gracious beyond all telling of it.
I praise you that you turn me loose to go with you to the edge of now and maybe,
to welcome the new, to see my possibilities, to accept my limits,
and yet begin living to the limit of passion and compassion until, released by joy,
I uncurl to other people, and to your kingdom coming,
for you are gracious beyond all telling of it.
--From Guerrillas of Grace: Prayers for the Battle

With all the problems entangling us these days, it's easy to get discouraged, even a bit despairing. Throw in the late winter blues of "lasts forever February" doldrums seem to be the order of the season. How's that for a segue to this post on my blog series concerning courage being faith's indispensable twin? If it doesn't seem to connect, hang in and let's see why I started this way.

In my last post, I stated that the seminal theologian H. Richard Niebuhr was the major influence on me when I studied at Yale Divinity School. In his book, The Meaning of Revelation, Dr. Niebuhr laid out three convictions that underlie his thinking. Each seem to significantly relate to the topic of courage being indispensable to faith. In my last post, we examined the first, namely that self-defense is the most prevalent source of error in all thinking.

Here's Niebuhr's second conviction for us to consider: "... the great source of evil in life is the absolutizing of the relative, which in Christianity takes the form of substituting religion, revelation, church or Christian morality for God."

At first, that seems a disturbing, discomforting assertion. But think again. It isn't that we can't find any degree of spiritual or psychological truth, or bit of insight into God, or semblance of justice and goodness in our lives and relationships, or our religious heritage; it's that we should not and cannot claim for any of them the status of an absolute or universal or inviolable truth or statement of a permanent state of reality. To claim that for any of them unleashes great harm or evil on our world and the human community. To accept that everything is relative is to realize that it's all conditioned and by time, by changing historical situations, new knowledge, varieties of experience, our always compromised spirituality and our finite mental capacity.

In simple terms, for Christians it means that though Jesus is our primary clue to who God is, there is still impenetrable mystery about God because God is more than we can see in Jesus: not completely other and yet more than we see in Jesus in ways we cannot grasp being mere mortals. To insist, to proclaim, to demand otherwise is to dehumanize others and ourselves.

How? Absolutizing our finite grasp of truths reduces human life to a power struggle between contending "absolutes." It distorts human relations into struggles for dominance and against submission. Both are dehumanizing and generate evil consequences. It inflicts great damage by insisting, even forcing others to accept and confirm to our "absolute truths." We do that by any means at our disposal from manipulation, subversion, institutional authority and intimidating warnings, to exercising all kinds of physical, psychological, economic power, even threats or acts of violence.

In personal relationships we do it by gossiping about others, distorting their views or actions, demeaning them, disrespecting them while exaggerating our own. Listen to how you and others talk about mutual "friends, neighbors, colleagues, social acquaintances when they're not present. That's a form of absolutizing our own relative views and behaviors. To practice any of that kind of absolutizing, or pieces of it, in society, or nation, or personal affairs, does in fact unleash evil on ourselves, others and the world. Think racism, sexism, gay bashing, ethnic discrimination, arrogant nationalism, war, nuclear proliferation, classism, economic manipulation, religious discrimination and pretentious claims as ready examples.

Recently I went to see my granddaughter, Lyle, act a small part in an off-Broadway production of Arthur Miller's, The Crucible. I assume you know the play. It's about the Salem
Witch hunt in the late 1692 and after. In his comments about the play, Miller wrote about the practice in that time of appointing a two-man patrol to check on whether people attended Sabbath worship services and behaved themselves properly and to take the names of any persons who did not and give them to the magistrates to take action against the offenders.

Miller goes on to write,
This predilection for minding other people's business was time-honored among the people of Salem, and it undoubtedly created many of the suspicions that were to feed the coming madness ... so now they and their church found in necessary to deny any other sect its freedom, lest their New Jerusalem be defiled and corrupted by wrong ways and deceitful ideas. They believed, in short, that they held in their steady hands the candle that would light the world. We have inherited this belief, and it has helped and hurt us ...The times, to their eyes, must have been as out of joint ... seemed as insoluble and complicated as do ours today. It is not hard to see how easily many could have been led to believe that the time of confusion had been brought on them by deep and darkly forces ... it is too much to expect people to hold back very long from laying on (others) all the force of their frustrations.
Miller wrote those words, and The Crucible, in 1952 in the time of Senator Joe McCarthy's witch hunt of communists he saw lurking behind hundreds of desks and positions in Washington, D.C. and all across the country. Millions of citizens supported the witch hunt and many careers were ruined by it to say nothing of its destructive affect in international circles. It is subtle and yet insidious to define ourselves, or our nation, as a "New Jerusalem" in constant danger of being "defiled and corrupted by wrong ways and deceitful ideas." But it is devilishly easy to do that.

Do you see any connection of this to what we are experiencing in our time? Does absolutizing the relative have anything to do with the ugly partisan battles of our political parties, with making slanderous attacks on anyone who doesn't conform to our absolute positions from other nations to the President to large swathes of voters in our own country, with demonizing all Muslims (No, I am not in any way in favor of terrorists of any kind), with the constant postponing of action on global warming and erecting road blocks to health care reform because government regulations are contrary to the absolute good of free market capitalism? Do you see any connection of this absolutizing process to racism which is still alive in the country, or the dismal record for helping the poor here and across the globe, or the slow progress of gays for equal rights, or the inaction on immigration reform? Or do you sense of it in any of your strained or increasingly distant relationships, catch a whiff of subtle witch hunting at work, among colleagues, or neighbors, or friends, or even families, because we all tend to absolutize our views or positions and gather exclusively with those who agree with us? To some degree we all do because that's the temptation to which we tend to succumb.

You may think I'm overstating the point and perhaps I am. But I don't think by much. It's that evil sneaks up on us, or out of us if we don't pay close attention to our inclination to absolutize our views. Evil isn't easily identified by appearing with a forked tail, horns and pitchfork. It slinks around like a mould, a leak in the exhaust pipe, a thoughtless, ill-tempered choice, a faith curdled by cowardice into making us feel proudly secure in our rightness, or more accurately, self-righteousness by doing what Niebuhr warns us of doing, namely "... substituting religion, revelation, church or Christian morality for God" -- and I'd be bold to add a few other substitutes like country, class, cause, comfort, certainty.

It's that last one, certainty, that's the clincher because it is damnably hard, or better, blessedly hard, to live without it. That's why the whole issue comes down to courage being the indispensable twin of faith. That is why I do not in any way want to have this post read as collaboration in a nurturing sense of despair, or of the midwinter blues that run from January to November, and if you get that from what I've written, I haven't been clear enough.

So, PLEASE, stay with me as I make the effort. First this: However destructive our knee jerk absolutizing of our relative views may be, that is still no cause for throwing up your hands, or sinking down in spirit in chronic despair or spiritual paralysis. No human situation, no personal crisis, no national or international condition is that overwhelming or immutable. To think or say that is just another form of absolutizing. That's the good news here. Really!

You see, when faith is fused with courage, we can begin to live with uncertainty but without anxiety, even if it takes a lifetime to achieve that condition. Or to quote the prophet Isaiah, we can "wait for the Lord ... renew (our) strength ... and run and not be weary ... walk and not faint" as we move in the direction of living with uncertainty with the courage of faith.

Faith twinned courage enables us to live with uncertainty in the honest realization of the evil consequence of absolutizing our little relatives but also to live with the awarenesss that such realization has with two good consequences:
One is the relief or freedom of spirit in realizing that God is not limited to our little relative views but is at work in human life and history in His/Her own gracious but mysterious way and according Her/His own purposes which exceed but do not necessarily exclude our little relative views or faith;
Two is the freedom, the relief, of realizing that we can add our little bits and pieces of truth to the work God is about in human life and history. To do that also involves faith with courage.

Those two consequences enable us to work persistently and gladly, but humbly as well, for whatever relative views we have of justice and peace, compassion, love of neighbor and enemy. We can do that because of our gratitude to and love of God who will use our efforts as He/She determines. We can do that with a kind of joy precisely because we aren't absolutely wed to having a particular outcome result from our efforts at a specific time or particular way.

So here's the so called bottom line. Courageous faith is not in, or defined by, our side, our view and values winning whatever fight we're in. It is not in achieving a particular outcome we hold to be the only right, true and good one. Our courageous faith is in God and His/Her mysterious ways. So, we're free to be humble, open and attentive to other views, and yet daring, persistent, intelligent guerrillas of grace, as I titled one of my books.

Adam Gopnik says the what made van Gogh such a powerful painter was that, unlike so many artists who paint to be popular in a sort of flamboyant, self-aggrandizing way, he had the spirit, passion and courageous faith to risk "making something that no one wants in the belief that someday someone will." As a young man, van Gogh set out to be pastor of a church but then felt himself called by God to be an artist. He was on speaking terms with God all his short life.
That's what he painted and we are in that someday and among the someones who want the something he had the courage of his faith to give us.

We're not alone in our struggles and it is not ALL up to us. Yes, God can and does use our efforts,surely in ways we don't fully understand. That doesn't matter. But how we live, for and with whom and Whom, and for what does matter. And that's more by far than enough.

Think about it. Ted

If you're willing, give me your suggestions and criticisms.

1 comment:

  1. From my perspective as an educator, both in my life as a philosophy professor and now as a Dean, what you are emphasizing here - the importance of faith without dogmatism and courage without domination - point to two virtues, or excellences, that are difficult but critical to cultivate in ourselves and our friends, be they children, students or colleagues.

    I very much appreciate your articulation of a life that is committed to something bigger than us and yet unwilling to succumb to the delusion that we have an adequate grasp of that which is bigger. Of course, this recognition is only part of the struggle; the other side, as you note, is the courage to embrace uncertainty without reaching for support in the absolute.

    Cultivating habits of living, thinking, acting and related in this context, the human context, should be a central endeavor of all education, but it in the church or the university.