A Banquet of Meanings

The eminent rabbi, Lawrence Kushner,  wrote an interesting volume entitled, “God was in this place and I, I did not know”.   It is a verse from the biblical book of Genesis (chapter 28, verse 16), and it comes at the end of that section of Genesis in which Jacob has his famous dream about that ladder connecting heaven and earth, with the angels of God ascending and descending on it.  Within the context of the dream, Jacob hears the voice of God, and when he awakes, he is astonished by his night visions and he utters the verse that is the title of Rabbi Kushner’s book.

What is especially interesting about the book is that in it, Kushner presents seven different rabbinical interpretations of what exactly is meant by this verse, which in the original Hebrew consists of only eight words.   Eight words that give rise to seven different meanings!   While Kushner expresses his surprise at how much debate there is within his tradition over this particular verse, his book taps into a long and venerable tradition within Judaism of debating the meaning of biblical texts.  One of the things I have come to admire about that tradition is how comfortable Judaism is with allowing different interpretations and different meanings to coexist side by side.   The Jewish people admit that the Bible is complex, and that when anyone approaches any particular text, the meaning that comes forth for that person may  not be the meaning that comes forth for someone else.  Rather than give in to the temptation to figure out which meaning is correct, the Jewish tradition simply allows them all to stand together, placing the responsibility on each person to engage with the text and with the differing interpretations.

I have often found myself wishing that the Christian tradition could be as generous.  We have a long history of trying to discover what the “true” meaning of a given text is, and we love to convene councils to determine exactly what the truth is so that we can enforce it on everyone and condemn as heretics those who refuse to submit to it.  We have somehow gotten it into our heads that being correct is somehow essential to our salvation, and that if we get it wrong, God will condemn us.

Such an approach, however, violates the very nature of the biblical text itself.  The Bible is not a book that fell out of heaven, written personally by God.  It is a collection of writings that seek to express and proclaim the experiences of a multitude of people and peoples with God.  In the case of the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament), these experiences are anchored in the ancient history of the Jewish people.  In the case of the Christian Scriptures (New Testament), these experiences are anchored in the person of Jesus and the history of the earliest Christian communities.  But no matter what part of the Bible we are talking about, we are dealing with the experiences that other people had with the divine.  And that means that we are not dealing with objectivity, but with subjectivity.  And THAT means that when we encounter any biblical text, we are encountering differing degrees of two things:  artifacts of human culture and prejudice, as well as elements of the divine.

For example, one of the human artifacts we encounter in the Bible is an unsettling degree of comfort with the institution of slavery.  While the Hebrew Scriptures offer rules meant to ensure that slaves are treated with a kind of minimal level of care, neither the Hebrew Scriptures nor the Christian Scriptures contain any explicit condemnation of slavery.  For centuries, Christians quoted the Bible in defense of keeping people enslaved.  Yet, we eventually reached the conclusion that the Bible was wrong about slavery.  To put it another way, we concluded that tolerant attitudes toward slavery found in the Bible are artifacts of human prejudice and culture — not a manifestation of divine truth.

On the other hand, we also detect across the whole spectrum of the Bible a consistent concern about vulnerable people, and about the importance of serving those people and seeking justice on their behalf.  This concern manifests itself in different ways in the regulations offered in the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures), in the witness of the prophets, in the teaching and life of Jesus and in the life of the early Christian communities.   The persistence of this concern has led most Christians to discern that this is of God, and that when we align ourselves with this concern, we are aligning ourselves with God (even if we do not always agree among ourselves on exactly what this alignment demands from us).

For me, this way of approaching the Bible both honors the texts that comprise it and open us up to a creative and dynamic engagement with these sacred writings.   Yet, many seem unable or unwilling to entertain this approach.   I think that many people find that this approach places too much responsibility on the individual to discern a meaning for him- or herself.  It also brings us back to this Christian pre-occupation with being correct, and this responsibility of individual discernment leaves too much room for getting it wrong.  We don’t like it when Christians reach different conclusions about something.  We carry with us this belief that only one view can possibly be right, and then we embark on a bit of a fool’s errand to try to figure out who that is.  And when, inevitably, we can’t, we split up and go our separate ways rather than risk being in community with someone who might be wrong.  Of course, it never occurs to us that we might be wrong!

Would that we could embrace the generosity of the Jewish tradition, and simply allow our differing interpretations to coexist.  What a powerful witness it would be to gather around the Communion table, the great Banquet of Christ, with all of our different points of view we each bring right there on the table with the bread and wine,  giving thanks that we have transcended the need to be right, having the humility to know we could be wrong, and simply celebrating the relationships between us.

Of course, in a sense, this witness does happen, but it often happens secretly.  I have been a priest long enough to know that in almost every congregation, there is a far greater diversity of interpretations than many folks in the pew are aware of.    I knew someone once who said that she would have a hard time worshiping with someone who couldn’t fully embrace the Nicene Creed.  I, of course, never told her that, in fact, she was worshiping with such people.  I knew the secret of our community’s theological diversity, but she either didn’t know it or didn’t want to know it.  And that is unfortunate, because again, the opportunity of creative and dynamic engagement is missed, and we deny ourselves the chance to celebrate a great banquet of meanings.

Rabbi Kushner begins his book on that verse from Genesis by telling the story of a group of children, to whom he had been giving a tour of the synagogue’s prayer hall.  He had not had time to show them the Torah scrolls located in the ark behind a curtain at the front of the hall, and promised that he would show them what was behind that curtain the next time they met.  The teacher later informed him that this led to much speculation among the children about what was back there.  One child said there was nothing there, another suggested that there was a new car — like on a game show.  One child did correctly guess that the Torah scrolls were there, but another insisted that all of them were wrong.  Behind that curtain, he said, is a mirror.  And perhaps that child is right — for when it comes to interpreting the Bible, perhaps what we learn the most about is not God, but ourselves, and the own deep need we each have to encounter God not in the pages of a book, but in the depths of our own hearts.

Respecting the Dignity of Every Human Being

The title of this entry, as most Episcopalians know, is from the Baptismal Covenant of The Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer.    It is one of the promises we commit ourselves to as followers of Jesus in an Episcopal mode:  to respect the dignity of every human being (a promise that is coupled with another promise, to strive for justice and peace among all people).  I have often said that this is the most radical phrase in our Prayer Book, built on the radical life and teaching of Jesus.  It demands a lot of us to respect the dignity of every human being — it isn’t easy to do, especially when we are called to respect the dignity of those with whom we have profound disagreements.

This was driven home to me this week, when an unanticipated political debate on my Facebook page suddenly took a downward spiral when one person weighed in on the subject with unexpected vitriol.   Other participants were rather shocked, one or two responded a little harshly, perhaps, and in the end, the person causing the shock and awe accused the rest of us of being intolerant of other points of view, and then unfriended me (and, indeed, seems to have disappeared from Facebook all together).

All of this has led me to reflect on the poor quality of our public discourse, and the inability of Americans to cross divides (as a Canadian I know recently observed).   The American political landscape for a number of years now has resembled the geography of California, with fault lines running every which way.   No matter what one’s political persuasion, most of our politicians — and most of our citizenry — seem to have forgotten what politics is really about:  compromise.  A generation or two ago, politicians understood this.  Ronald Reagan, for example, knew that he needed Tip O’Neil if anything were going to get done.  Those two men couldn’t have disagreed more politically, yet they were able to engage one another without sacrificing a fundamental mutual respect.  Ted Kennedy partnered with a number of Republican politicians over his long career in order to accomplish some of his goals.  And he and his opposite numbers were able to maintain respect for one another despite their disagreements.  They all understood that in a democracy, one cannot expect to get everything one wants.  Politics demands that two sides meet each other somewhere in the middle, with the hope that somehow that compromise will serve the common good.

It seems to me that, from my particular perspective as an Episcopalian Christian who has promised to respect the dignity of every human being, I might suggest two principles that somehow need to return to our public life:

First, we need to stop identifying people so completely with their points of view.  In other words, we need to recognize that there is more to a person’s personhood than his or her opinion on any particular issue.  I guess I’m talking about a political version of that rather hackneyed theological epithet, “Love the sinner, hate the sin.”   It is possible to love and respect one another, even while we disagree profoundly.  Politics and our public discourse needs to be de-personalized in this sense, so that we stop demonizing one another and begin truly to engage the issues.

Second, we need to recover the understanding I outlined above, that politics in a democracy necessarily requires compromise.  Just as we tell our young children that they can’t have everything that they want and about the importance of taking into consideration the needs and wants of others, we adults must relearn this when it comes to our public life.  We cannot have everything we want on our own terms.  The world does not revolve around us.  We must share it with others, and take their wants and needs into account.

It seems to me that this really is quite basic stuff.  My son’s kindergarten class works on it every day.  Yet, our public conversation has drifted very far from it.  And when our public figures can’t engage in civil debate, attacking one another’s arguments without attacking one another, they send a message to the rest of the country that it’s okay to be strident, disrespectful, accusatory and just downright nasty.  It is a way of being in the world that is inconsistent with the way Jesus teaches us to be in the world.  And, recognizing that we are a nation of many different religions, it is a way of being that is inconsistent with the teachings of all of the world’s great spiritual traditions.

I’m not sure how we get to this new level in public life — it may require an act of divine intervention.  Yet, if we never try, we will never get there.  If our political leaders can’t show us the way, perhaps we voters must begin to show the way and start telling those we elect that they need to find a better way.  We all need to find a better way.

Why the Church is Shrinking — Part 2

It pains me greatly to have to post a Part 2 following upon yesterday’s post, but once again I have stumbled across something so unbelievable that it leaves me speechless — though I still have the ability to type!  An organization I have never before heard of, called the Christian Anti-Defamation Commission, has apparently published a list of what they call the Top 10 Anti-Christian Acts of 2009.  About a third of the list revolves around pro-life/abortion related incidents, and another third revolves around sexuality issues (apparently, the appearance of Bishop Gene Robinson to pray at an Obama pre-inauguration event constitutes one of the top 10 anti-Christian acts).   I suspect you are wondering, however, what constitutes the Number 1 Anti-Christian Act of 2009, according to this organization.  Well, here it is:  the passage of new hate crime legislation.

So, let me understand this.  In the Gospels, we find Jesus saying that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves, and we find Jesus defining our neighbors in terms of anyone who needs our help.  Yet somehow, when we pass a law protecting some of our neighbors from crimes committed out of hatred against them, this constitutes an anti-Christian act?

This brings me to another of Jesus’ teachings:  that we must love our enemies.   I wouldn’t count the Christian Anti-Defamation Commission as my enemy, exactly, although the strength of my disagreement with what they seem to stand for is probably about how I would feel toward someone who was my enemy.  Somehow, I must find a way to love them, even as I hope and pray for some kind of transformation to occur in their point of view.  Some days, following Jesus is not so easy.

All of this reminds me that, in fact, the words “Christian” and “Christianity” have become almost meaningless.  The reality is that you cannot know what someone means when they call themselves a Christian until you have them complete a rather involved questionnaire — or at least have a long conversation.  And there are many different Christianities out there, each one, I suppose, claiming to be authentic — including my own.  Yet, I have trouble finding any authenticity in the kind of Christianity that seems to lie behind the Christian Anti-Defamation Commission’s list.

My mind wanders back to something Karen Armstrong said at the end of her book about fundamentalisms in Judaism, Christianity and Islam (entitled The Battle for God).  She acknowledged that it was difficult to develop any kind of standard by which to evaluate anyone’s religion or spirituality.   But then she went on to say that if one’s spiritual path did not lead one toward greater compassion for others, then in her mind, that path needed to be questioned.  I must say that I find little compassion, and a lot of judgment, in the list put forth by these Anti-Defamation folks.

Jesus really DOES need a new publicist.  The friend whose Facebook posting led me to discover the Christian Anti-Defamation Commission’s list featured a comment by someone that simply said, “And you wonder why most people don’t attend church.”   Not a surprising comment (or reality) at all, when the public face of Christianity tends to be primarily a face of judgment, rather than a face of compassion.

Somehow, those of us who practice a Christianity of a different kind, must get the word out that there IS a different kind of Christianity from the one that seems to get most of the attention.  Our future depends on it.  More than that, our faith demands it.

One Reason the Church is Shrinking

Studies have shown that the fastest growing religious groups in America, and indeed around the world, are atheists and agnostics.  I never know what to make of such studies, and I’m sure that the religious picture in America and around the globe is more complex than any study can perhaps capture.  After all, Pew Research found not too long ago that 14% of people who said they don’t believe in God  also identify themselves as Christian.  So, religion can be a complicated thing.

One thing seems clear, though.  Nationally, involvement in churches is trending downward.  Again, there are probably many reasons for this, but one reason that occasionally raises its head did so again this week.  As news of the devastating earthquake in Haiti reached us, the Rev. Pat Robertson felt it necessary to use his TV program to say that the people of Haiti had made a deal with the devil to rid themselves of French domination during the colonial period.  It worked, the Rev. Robertson said, and ever since, the people of Haiti have been cursed with one terrible thing after another.  So, he suggested, perhaps this disaster is a “blessing in disguise”, causing the Haitians to turn toward God.

The online site where I read about this allowed readers to comment on the story, and every response was highly critical of the Rev. Robertson’s statement.  I noticed that there were a number of comments from people who cited such remarks as one reason why they either didn’t believe in God or wanted nothing to do with the church.

I wanted to tell each of those people that there is another way of holding one’s faith, that there are other people whose Christianity is quite different, and who don’t assign horrible natural disasters to divine punishment for wrong-doing.  But it’s hard to get the media to pay attention to you when you’re just being reasonable.

It seems that in many ways, we have some how managed to cede Christianity to unreasonable people.  It is they who so often seem to be the people who are consulted when a Christian point of view is wanted.  So my question is this:  how do reasonable Christians get air time?  How do those of us who hold a more sophisticated, nuanced faith get that across to people who find the Christian tradition to be bankrupt because of the more unreasonable voices among us?

I don’t know the answer to that.  It seems that Jesus needs a better publicist.

An Epiphany about Epiphany

When I was in college, my undergraduate major was in International Relations, with a focus in Soviet and East European affairs.  I studied Russian language, literature and culture (among other things), and was fortunate enough to spend a summer in the Soviet Union, as it was still called in those days.  This inevitably brought me into contact with the Russian Orthodox Church, which is so much a part of Russian history and culture, and has witnessed a rather remarkable resurgence since the fall of communism.  While the Orthodox Church is a bit too rigid for me, and has a rather difficult attitude toward the role of women in the life of the church, there is much about Orthodox spirituality and liturgy that I admire and appreciate.  My explorations into the tradition of the Orthodox Churches led me to a discovery — an epiphany, if you will — about Epiphany, the feast which we celebrate today (Wednesday, January 6).

In The Episcopal Church, Epiphany is all about the three wise ones who come to find the baby Jesus, and the Baptism of Jesus is treated separately (it is celebrated on the Sunday after Epiphany).  In the Orthodox Churches, Epiphany (which they call Theophany) really focuses on the Baptism of Jesus, and so as part of their celebration, a lot of water gets blessed.  And I’m talking about serious water-blessing here.  Typically, on the eve of Epiphany/Theophany, there is an evening service at which water is blessed in the church, and sprinkled upon the people as a form of blessing and as a kind of renewal of everyone’s baptismal experience.  On the day of Epiphany/Theophany itself, there is typically a morning service, after which congregations will process from their churches to the nearest river or large body of water.  Gathered at the side of said body of water, there will then be a blessing of that water — and through it, all water everywhere on earth.   In many places, a centuries-old Greek tradition will then be observed:  a large cross will be thrown into the water, and a group of young men will dive into the water to find it.  The one who finds it first earns great honor and distinction.  So popular is this tradition that it is even observed in places that are much colder than Greece is this time of year.

This tradition of blessing the waters outside the church, and not just inside, was an epiphany for me, in that it makes a rather dramatic environmental statement.  I am accustomed to thinking about the Baptism of Jesus as really being about the act of baptism, and what it means.  But the Orthodox have developed this tradition of focusing on the stuff in which Jesus was baptized, and in doing so, they have made an explicit connection between baptism and water.  The Baptism of Jesus was not only about Jesus, but it was also about the water — that Jesus’ sacred encounter with God in the waters of baptism extended a blessing to the waters themselves, and to the whole of creation.   For the Orthodox, baptism not only gives us a new relationship with God, but a new relationship with all of creation.  It makes me think of that line from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans, in which he says that creation “waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God” (Romans 8:19).  A link is created, both by St. Paul and by this Orthodox tradition, between us and the created world.  In order for creation to be “saved” from abuse and degradation, we ourselves must be “saved” from the self-centeredness that convinces us that the environment doesn’t require our care.

So, as we celebrate Epiphany and the Baptism of Jesus, remember this Orthodox tradition of blessing the waters, and think about the way in which we can be those children of God who extend blessing and grace to all creation.

Oh, and by the way, the Russians aren’t celebrating Epiphany today — they are celebrating Christmas!  They will celebrate Epiphany/Theophany 12 days from now.  The rest of the Orthodox world is celebrating Epiphany today, though — ah, the church can indeed be a complex mystery.