“In Wonder all Philosophy began; in Wonder it ends: and Admiration fills up all the interspace. But the first Wonder is the offspring of ignorance: the last is the parent of Adoration.” Samuel Taylor Coleridge
OCTOBER 23, 2016
I: PERFECT STORY FOR OUR TIMES AS WE APPROACH THE PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION! Luke 18:9-14 — He told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt. Sounds familiar in the present political climate. It’s worth repeating.
“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’
But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’
I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
This is Good News — a promise of an explosion in what it means to be human. How? Humility is the grounding for celebration as we seek to celebrate our values!
The Gospel gives us back a true sense of self – a release from our having to see ourselves as better than others. “At least I’m not one of the idiots who are voting for X!” You know what I mean.
“Look at him who thinks he’s nothing!”
Giving up our own low self image! If you don’t think you’re a sinner you don’t need any good news! Having a truthful and accurate view of things. The first rule of the spiritual life is accuracy. BUT we tend to claim to be innocent – at least in our politics — as we push our punitive certitudes – keeping honest debate at arms length. John Milton’s tough insistence that there is no human activity that it entirely innocent – we like to think that that we have committed no trespass that needs to be forgiven! We tend to think that we have a right not to be offended and a right to feel good about ourselves! I was told years ago by one of the monks who trained me for the priesthood: “Alan, never, never examine your motives! They’re bound to be vile and disgusting!” Not completely true but they do point out the fact that a pure motive is a rare thing.
The resilient power of the Gospel is that we are all sinners in need of forgiveness. This is good news!
BUT these are . . .
II: PECULIAR TIMES – ESTRANGED FROM FACT – THE ESCAPE INTO TRUTHINESS! Post-truth politics – we espouse things that “feel true” or “ought to be true!” But with no basis in fact. Makes us open to authoritarianism – even totalitarianism. [i]
Sore losers always accuse the other side of lying. It’s not that truth claims cannot be falsified or contested but rather truth is of secondary importance. Feelings not facts matter most. We are comforted by ways which reinforce prejudices. “It must be true. I read it on the internet.”
Truth can also be distorted by a willful or naïve appeal to “fairness” and false equivalency. A NASA scientist reports that Mars is probably uninhabited. Professor Snooks says it’s teeming with aliens – as if these two assertions are somehow equal in value. Post-truth politics hates complexity. We become experts at creating a reality in which we are the good guys.
We are flooded with distracting information. There are so many “Facts” now – the data junk yard. You can harness lots of little “facts” in the service of a great lie. “. . . the post-truth strategy works because it allows people to forgo critical thinking in favor of having their feelings reinforced by soundbite truthiness.”
At the end of William Golding’s stunning novel The Lord of the Flies Ralph (who started off as the shipwrecked boys’ leader) is running for his life. The boys-turned-savages are screaming for his blood. He is to be sacrificed to the stinking corpse who has become the boys’ god, the Lord of the Flies. Ralph manages to reach the beach just in time where a naval officer stands on the sand. At the sight of a figure of authority from the “civilized” world the boys begin “to come to their senses.” They remember their well ordered past and the reassuring stability of the world from which they had been exiled. Golding himself later asked the unnerving question: the naval officer rescued the children from their own terrible violence, but “who will rescue the adult and his cruiser?”
The question of “eternal authority” – the question of the sacred as “the really real” — wont go away and we will either cobble together our own from our fears and the bits and pieces of our experience (and both believers and unbelievers do this) or we will be committed to a conversation in search of such an authority – a conversation in which no one has the last word and where no one is excluded from the table.
This is the amazing authority of this Table, of the Eucharist. You want to know what’s really real? Gather around this Table. What’s at stake is what we think being human is all about. Here’s a poem by a Roman Catholic sister.
The kingdom of God is like a seed planted in a woman’s heart
slowly, silently stretching it
beyond family and friends, church and nation
until one day the heart bursts open
revealing a Table
wider than the world
warm as an intimate embrace.
To this Table everyone is invited
no one is a stranger, no one unfit;
each brings a gift, work of one’s own hands, heart,
— a morsel for the Table —
and there is always enough
enough because no one keeps hidden the
bread of the morrow
enough because the sharing is the
miracle of multiplication.
From this Table each rises
strengthened by a morsel and a sip
III: THE CHALLENGE AT THE HEART OF THE CALL TO BE HUMAN! The election just around the corner! Politics – separation of Church and State doesn’t mean that we’re not concerned with our being called to live in a certain kind of POLIS = City, and be a certain kind of people. The great thing about the Gospel is that it puts a big question mark beside every other allegiance. This is at the heart of a our freedom. You’re a Republican? Be a questioning one. You’re a Democrat? Don’t give the party you ultimate allegiance! Remember the classic response of the New York City taxi driver when asked who he was voting for. “Sometimes your have to forget your principles and do the right thing!”
“You get old, and you realize there are no answers, just stories.” Garrison Keillor. The trouble is that there are conflicting stories about what it is to be human, some of them, with bloody consequences. How do we choose? The Bible is a collection of stories and for centuries people have been using them for their own ends.
To be human is to be a citizen – civic virtues as opposed to rancid individualism. Hospitality rather than Hostility. Banquet/Fortress. Which is to be? As we stand together – both sinful and justified (to use to old language)
Two principles hidden in the stories – the first question God will ask us when we get to heaven: “Where are the Others” Où sont les autres? There’s no private deal: — and remember James Joyce’s definition of the Catholic Church — “Here comes everybody! There are two great doctrines! Everybody matters and We’re in this together. It’s a way of affirming the sacred – what is really real — at the heart of things.
The secret to growing into being human is what GKC called “the thin thread of thanks”, and praise at the sheer wonder of being alive and aware.
As one expert on Dante’s vision of hell has written: “Hell is not a place. It is a series of consequences of human action.”[iii] This is the fearful consequence of our freedom. We’re free to infernalize the world or make it hospitable. In other words, we get the world we deserve – we have to choose between communion or cannibalism.
In Essex in the UK in late August, six teenage boys were arrested for allegedly murdering an immigrant because he was heard speaking a foreign language. Hell.
What are our freedoms and responsibilities as human beings?
Ram Dass: “”When all is said and done, we’re just all walking each other home.”
IV: OUR TWO POLITICAL PARTIES (WITH THE INDEPENDENTS AS WELL) HAVE THEIR SHARE OF THE SELF RIGHTEOUS: One of the challenges on the liberal side of things is that, “Liberal Progressives have discovered that forwarding every question of responsibility to the courts makes them feel like they have done their duty! The people on the Right know how to make American great again. What both sides have done instead is to create an insatiable monster and confirm the notion of victimhood for all citizens.” Everyone’ can claim victim status and find someone to blame. Yes, there are real victims but we are in danger of being in perpetual war with each other and we invoke the law and use it as a blunt instrument. ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’” I might not be much but at least I’m not one of those (you fill in the blank – there must be someone you feel superior to!)
V: WHERE ARE WE NOW? Hard to be thankful in a world falling apart? A world marked by cultural plurality and religious strife. New information technologies – we live in a data junk-yard. On one side is a strident materialistic critique of religion. On the other a world of militant faiths. Hostility rather than hospitality?
The poet John Keats wrote about negative capability – three elements doubt, uncertainty and mystery. Things that all honest human beings have to live with. In 1817 – “I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a [human being] is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”
This is a hard vocation in a world where people are addicted to raucous certainties and crude feelings of self-righteousness.
Ram Dass: “”When all is said and done, we’re just all walking each other home.”
This binds all people of good will together before we get to religion and politics. All the stories we tell are footnotes to these two pillars or doctrines.
VII: YOU WANT TO KNOW WHAT’S REAL? GATHER AROUND THIS TABLE!
Is anything sacred? Salman Rushdie in a beautiful essay: “I grew up kissing books and bread. In our house, whenever anyone dropped a book or let fall a chapatti or a ‘slice’, which was our word for a triangle of buttered leavened bread, the fallen object was required not only to be picked up but also kissed, by way of an apology for the act of clumsy disrespect. I was as careless and butter-fingered as any child, and, accordingly, during my childhood years, I kissed a large number of ‘slices’ and also my fair share of books. Devout households in India often contained, and still contain, persons in the habit of kissing holy books. But we kissed everything. We kissed dictionaries and atlases. We kissed Enid Blyton novels and Superman comics. If I’d dropped the telephone directory I’d probably have kissed that, too. All this happened before I had ever kissed a girl. In fact it would be true, true enough for a fiction writer, anyhow, to say that once I started kissing girls, my activities with regard to bread and books lost some of their special excitement. But one never forgets one’s first loves. Bread and books: food for the body and food for the soul – what could be more worthy of our respect, and even love?”[iv]
VIII: AND ALL IN THE CONTEXT OF STORY-TELLING! “You get old, and you realize there are no answers, just stories.”
In David Edgar’s play Pentecost, refugees and hostages tell each other stories in the depth of the night. The one of refugees protests that it will be much harder to kill the hostages if it becomes necessary because they have shared stories with each other. Story-telling binds people together. This is its magic. It not only crosses barriers, it breaks them down, and with their fund of stories and myths, these refugees and hostages discover that they have more in common than they thought, in spite of the fact that they all speak different languages, in spite of the fact that they live in a world riven by war and fragmented by fiercely guarded borders. The lesser truths of ethnic and class identity gave way to the greater truth that there is but one human heart, and to know that in Africa, to know that in Israel/Palestine, to know in Iraq and Syria, to know that in these United States is to begin to bind up the wounds of the human family.
”When all is said and done, we’re just all walking each other home.”
So let’s do it!
Welcome home! Welcome to the banquet! Communion not cannibalism!
Let’s be signs of good news by walking each other home – fellow sinners – loved and forgiven.
Oh, and VOTE!
[i] (The Economist, September 10th, 2016)
[iii] See Robert Pogue Harrison’s review of Marco Santagata’s Dante: The Story of His Life in the NRB, October 27, 2016.
[iv] Granta, Issue 31, 1990, p.98f.