Christian Realism in an Election Year

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I must confess that I miss the electoral system in Canada, with the election occurring eight weeks after it is called, after the expenditure of a fraction of the campaign money. Be that as it may, the remarkable past few months make me feel obliged to offer some comment.
 
The last time there was what one might think of as a public theologian, particularly in the political realm were the 1950's and 60's. The figure I have in mind was the ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr of Union Seminary. He had been a major voice opposing the isolationism of the late 1930's, and went on to address the Cold War. While he has more recently been exposed to strong critiques, he is worth listening to in our own time.
    
At the heart of Niebuhr's approach is the Christian doctrine of the human person. We are at once made in the image of God and fallen. We exist between these two poles. As a result we easily lurch between an excessive optimism and pessimism, between an undue sense of our powers for good and despair. Niebuhr sees this playing out in American history in swings between interventionism and isolationism.
    
One might describe certain virtues which follow from his basic insight. We do have a responsibility to act when we can, but always with humility about the limits of our capacity, unforeseen consequences, and our own mixed motives. We need to see our neighbors and opponents as caught between the same poles of human nature, as essentially like ourselves. We also need to make room for the idealism of a distinctly Christian witness even in a broken world. I would attribute much of this to Niebuhr's Lutheranism, with its strong sense of the role of the law to restrain evil, and of the 'two swords' of the gospel and of legitimate but limited secular power.
  
Humility, a sense of our own flaws as well as our calling, the distinct role of the Gospel, all of it what Niebuhr called 'Christian realism':  I think our society could use a strong dose of these, as well as the dignity and seriousness he exhibited, in our present moment.  

+GRS

Vigil

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What if you and I could bring things into being? What if a mere thought made it so? It is the dream of three year olds, psychotics, and emperors! I say it and it is so… there are lots of examples of this, and they all conspire to render the sense that it would be more hell than anything else. If only I could impose my will on an unruly world and make it so - only to discover that I impose my own chaos, or my own mortality on it all. Old King Midas would have it all gold, only to realize that he turns it all into inert death, the image of his own heart, even his own living child. Dorian Grey would live forever, but the image of it on the wall goes on forever, yes, but older and more hideous. Or think of Caligula or most any sultan or grand commissar, every whim an edict until he lives encased in fear and death, like ice in Dante’s account of the depth of hell. If our mere word were spoken and it were so we can see how it would be a terrible world indeed.

Of course we have an experience of the opposite too - our words like gauze wrapped around reality, hiding it, distorting it. I have sworn to myself not to comment on the political scene this year, a promise not easy to keep! Let us agree on this much - the world of ads and spin is not a world of real truth telling or promise making, but the hall of mirrors in the arcade. Where words are all illusory, then we are left with only the will to power, the fist under the velvet.

How do word and will and vision relate to one another? How do they relate in us, and how do they relate in God, and in His kingdom? These are what we are wondering about? If you think about it, you realize that this is what the whole idea of a sacrament is about. This night, above all others, was the great sacramental moment, prime time for baptism and the first Eucharist , in the early church complete not only with bread and wine but also milk and honey - messy perhaps but appealing. The sacrament is the moment when a word makes you something new - now husband or wife, now child of God in spite of yourself, now living with Christ within you however bereft you feel, now healed, now empowered to lead, and so forth. You are spoken into being such - that is what sacraments show and tell us. This night is the great moment of sacrament in the Christian life, and as such they leave a great bread crumb on our path toward understanding what our lessons are saying, and hence who God is showing himself to be for us.

The thread that runs through all the readings this evening is the following: God speaks and it is so. The word for word in Hebrew, dabar, also means act, event, reality - God’s word summons reality. What I am describing is as mysterious to us as it is simple. He speaks, and yet the speaker and what springs forth are still different. He speaks, and yet there is no distance between the word and its result. God is Lord or heaven and earth, but he is not far away, rather he is closer to it and us than we are to our own breath. He says ‘light’ and it is instantly so, only he is not reducible to light, He is the source of it. It, we, depend on him to be, and yet he does not depend on us. That is what it means to say he hovers over us, but not we over him.

The first reading this evening is the first reading in the bible, first for a reason. Because it brings time into being it is first of a long line, a narrative. Because it is God’s word it remains forever, and echoes down all other moments. God is saying ‘let there be light’ all the way through, in liberation, even judgment, in the resurrection, and so on. That is why the repair of the world is called new creation in Isaiah, and our redemption is so called in Paul.

God speaks, and the creation springs into being, and this speaking continues every second, for without it the world would collapse back into the vacuum that is also called ‘chaos.’ That is why the world cannot shake the traces, the aroma, the footprints, of its origin in God. They are no longer proofs, and can be resisted, but they cannot be altogether removed. So in Psalm 19 we hear that the beauty and order of the world, and the remains of such in human society bespeak something more, though they do so in a speech without words, the speech of human longing.

Our vigil readings provide from the bible itself a commentary on what I am saying about the God as dynamic Word in the first chapter of Genesis. Listen to these words from the 55th chapter of the prophet Isaiah: 8-11. God’s thoughts are far above us. His words come like rain right down to us so that life springs us. And between them there is not gap. Both are true because he is God! And it is just this high-above, come-down-to-earth, word-recreating-the-world nature of God is why the incarnation could happen and was bound in love to happen! The God of ‘let there be light’ didn’t have to become incarnate, but he is the kind of God who would! Such a God is Word, which is wisdom, as Proverbs tells us, a God whose goodness does suffuse His world, but he is also the disruptive interventionist dynamic God who would come and up-end it all in the weakness of the cross. And this evening we are assured that, just as the Word is spoken and there must be light, so he intervenes, even in the concealment of the incarnation, even in patience and suffering, and the Son is raised, and the world does come round right at the end of things. The resurrection of Jesus and someday the resurrection of us all is consistent with the word and wisdom of God, and they are consistent with the God whose thoughts are not our thoughts as well.

The Vigil is a very short course in biblical theology. It hits the highlights, runs the thread through human history on its way to let-there-be the light of the new Jerusalem. Noah - God speaks and judgment comes to be, and preservation for a better day comes to be. Moses - God speaks and liberation comes to be, a people to be his witness in the world comes to be. Isaiah - God speaks and his own Son is among humanity, victorious in suffering and lowliness for the sake of the whole world comes to be. Ezekiel - God speaks and the raising up of the people of God anew when the story seemed at a dead end comes to be.   God speaks and in each case he is also speaking it forward toward Jesus, because God’s Word can give birth to more than one thing at a time, that Word spoken into time out of eternity.  

I believe that the breadcrumb trail this evening is also the trail we need to follow as a church in our often bewildering post-modernity, in plurality, in forgetfulness about the Bible, in cultural struggle, in the marketplace of churches and their brands, of suspicion of authority. The borders of the circle and porous and shifting. But at the center is the word of God, and its dynamo is the Word of life. Not our wills, but It has the power to speak forgiveness and church into being. Church is the container for the plutonium.

But this night, the future of the church and its confusions are not the thing. What counts is the unquenchable fire at its heart, the fire of love who is God, which proved un-extinguishable 2,000 years ago and is so now. God said ‘let my son live’ and it was so, through the Spirit and the Word who he is. Not tyranny, or the deadening imposition of will, as revelation says ‘behold I am alive and have now the keys of death and hell,’ which means flourishing and freedom in the Spirit and the certain coming of the day of God in which all is clearly as he speaks it to be, and all say Amen as we, in time and ahead of the time, aligned to the Word, and blessed this evening ourselves to sing. Amen

      

 

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