What To Do With That Sunset

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It is always good to be aware of the resources we have under our noses. If you are a Christian and you live in Dallas, one of those is Bruce Marshall, a Catholic theologian at Perkins. Among a number of noted books, I want to think briefly about one I read while in graduate school. While it may seem abstract and unrelated to our daily lives in parishes, it does pertain to more than you might think. In Christology in Conflict Marshall talks about how we describe things, for example Mrs. O’Leary’s cow. We might begin by saying it’s a mammal, in which case whether it is that particular cow in Chicago makes little difference - it’s an example of something more general. Or we can describe the cow in terms of its story - how it was born, how it kicked over the lantern, how it died in the great conflagration. Marshall’s point is that if you start with the general, it is harder to show how this cow or that matters. And if you start with the story, it tells you about some certain individual one, and you have to work to show the wider significance its life had.

Something similar is true of religion. We can start at the most general plane. We watch a sunset and have a sense of being part of something vast and beautiful, or look at the ocean, and have a corresponding feeling, of something deep and mysterious. We have, in other words, an experience to which we attach significance. We might then assume that something similar is true of everyone. We might even assume that it shows you what is most important about life or reality itself. There are lots of thinkers who have wanted to point at one experience or another, and go on to say ‘that is what all the religions are really pointing at, each in their own peculiar way.’ See how the story part is secondary to the general description part. You can also see how appealing this idea is - instead of religions fighting with each other, we could emphasize the seed they all share, and not worry about the husks that differ. In the modern age that has often been the tack that has been taken.

The cost is obvious. If you start in this general way - ‘all religions are really about this general truth, or this pervasive insight,’ it is very hard to make the particulars then of great importance. The experience at the core matters, the particular stories, symbols, names, each has, are secondary. But of course the people who follow these religions think no such thing - they think that their particulars matter above all else, and that they should say what matters most in their own backyard. Far from being affirming, the kind of ‘pluralism’ which finds a common stratum beneath them all ends up imposing our notion on them. It turns out to be far less receptive than it seems.

A version of this kind of pluralism is called ‘the perennial philosophy,’ according to which religions and philosophies of the ages have all been versions of the same basic insight. At the very least we can say this: such a claim is quite the opposite of the Creed you and I say every Sunday morning. It is, really, a short story about a specific person, Jesus, about whom the greatest claims about the origin of the world, about the overcoming of evil, about where it all is going, are affixed.

But if that is so, then what has that got to do with me? And how does that one man’s story touch everyone? Well, that is just what preaching and teaching set out to explain! For example, the meaning and value of other religions are not rejected totally and out of hand- now some sense of them must be made in relation to who Jesus is and where He is taking human history. Ditto us, our lives, our gazing at the beautiful sunset, in the midst of our story, which really only makes sense, says the Christian, when it finally is nestled in His.

Peace

+GRS

The Mystery of Iniquity

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As Americans today we are reeling from the news of the mass murder in Orlando. We all cry out in solidarity as a nation for respect and security for all our fellow citizens. I believe it is incumbent on traditional Christians to express most clearly their solidarity with their gay and lesbian neighbors.

I have been thinking today about the nature of human evil. The media have so far managed a partial picture of the perpetrator. He was fueled by anger toward our LGBT neighbors, affected by mental illness, and influenced by the ideology of hatred and violence found in ISIS.  This seems typical of human sin.  There is an irreducible dimension of human responsibility, the outgrowth of the vice of anger and hatred. But this is entangled with his own weakness. He was himself mentally ill, impaired. Finally there is always the dimension of what the New Testament calls the ‘powers and principalities.’ These are corrupt structures of belief and relationship, beyond the individual, that makes human society tilt toward wrong. Whether in some smaller cruelty or in the horrendous, these three are ubiquitous. Why they are with us in this God’s world is itself a mystery only made clear on the last day when every tear is dried and, before Christ, we see face to face.

Peace

+GRS

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