Influence, Touching and Affecting

Someone I last saw over 30 years ago has written me. She knew me and my wife and our little son back when I was in seminary. She wrote me about us having her and some other people to dinner in our apartment. She remembered Susan as “a very gentle person. She told me about her writing on several occasions. I always admired her mothering skills with Michael.”
    The occasion of her writing me, now, is her reading a book I wrote. Her own situation of caregiving for a spouse had parallels with mine. She was grateful for the book and wanted me to know. I am in turn very grateful to her for writing.
    You write a book, you preach a sermon, you teach a class — and you never know the influence you have, how much you may have touched people or affected the way they go about their lives. I am not a great or widely read author. (When Bloomsbury took over T & T Clark, who published two academic books of mine, I noted that they were also the publishers of J. K. Rowling, the inventor of Harry Potter. “Between us we sell millions of copies.”) But even with such modest circulation as Losing Susan has had, I hear from readers, often strangers. It’s like God is lifting up the curtain just a wee bit to suggest the vastness of our connections one with another.
    And you who read this: it’s true of you too. I speak of writing, teaching, and preaching only because those are things I have done. You have your own activities in the world. Whatever they are, they are connections, points where you influence, touch, affect others. They may be special to your profession. Or they may be entirely quotidian. They are probably some of both, and you are aware of only a tiny fraction of them.
    “By virtue of his Incarnation,” the fathers of the Second Vatican Council wrote, “the Son of God has united himself in some way with every human being.” Our human nature is interconnected but also seriously damaged by sin. Yet Jesus, who truly represents the human race to God, offers, through his overcoming of sin, the hope and the means of reconciliation, the restoration ofcommunio, of connections.
    In The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis sees a grand procession coming down from high heaven to the low place where he is. It is altogether joyous, with singing and much praise, angels strewing flowers, children dancing, all leading a radiant, almost blindingly beautiful woman. Lewis wonders if it might be Saint Mary. His companion laughs heartily. No, he says, this is “someone ye’ll never have heard of,” Sarah Smith of Golders Green! She was an ordinary person in life. (No books, no sermons, no classes!) But every child who came to her door was loved. Everyone who happened to meet her was blessed in simple ways. She loved God and she touched all those whom she met.
    Is Susan like Sarah Smith, I sometimes wonder. Am I? Are you?
    Out & About. This Sunday, November 12, I am to preach at St. Peter’s in McKinney at the 9 and 11 a.m. Eucharists. At 10:10, I’ll be speaking about some of the themes of Losing Susan.

Ethics and Doctrine

Matthew 22:34-46 suggestively combines ethics and doctrine. First the question is put to Jesus about the greatest commandment, which he answers with the “summary of the law,” the two commandments to love God and neighbor. This is clearly about “what we do” in the broadest sense (i.e., it includes prayer and action). We are to love God and our neighbor, and we are to see that the entirety of God’s desires for us can be arranged around those two primordial loves.
    Second is the question Jesus puts to his questioners: Whose son is the Christ to be? They must answer David, and that’s true, but then Jesus turns to Psalm 2, ascribed to David, where David refers to his son (his descendant) as his “Lord” to whom “the Lord,” that is to say, God, had instructed “sit at my right hand.” So Psalm 2, Jesus would teach us, points to the divine status of the Christ who is to be descended from David.
    Step back from these two question/answer encounters. First we had ethics. Then we had doctrine. First, how should we live? Second, who is Jesus?
    Matthew is showing us, in a dramatic form, how ethics and doctrine are tied together by Jesus. Jesus could have left it with his (final and decisive) interpretation of the law. But no: he saw the need to go on to ground his interpretation in his being. Jesus is able to tell us how to live precisely because he is the Son of God, the one who is to be invited to sit at the Father’s right hand.
    We can’t separate ethics and doctrine.
    The marriage of ethics and doctrine has been hard for Christian people to maintain. A century ago, at the first stirrings of the modern ecumenical movement, it was widely said that “doctrine divides, ethics unites.” Christians then felt their denominational differences keenly. Presbyterians (for instance) understood themselves to be different from Lutherans (and so forth). Doctrine divided the churches. But nonetheless, they felt, they could unite in upholding Christian morality in the face of new challenges.
    Today it’s almost the opposite. We find people saying that ethical issues are divisive. Various Christians feel their ethical differences from other Christians keenly. But nonetheless, it is said, we should be able to unite, since all of us Christians hold the same doctrine.
    Neither view is correct. Any attempt to bracket off ethics and doctrine from each other will ultimately obscure the truth of both.
    But how are ethics and doctrine connected? That’s the hard part indeed! A book which calls itself “Ethics As Theology” shows a promising direction, in terms of deep theological groundwork.
    On a more everyday level, we might try to sketch for ourselves the lines that run from fundamental doctrines to everyday morality—for instance, from the Incarnation, which gives us the full humanity of Jesus, to claims that every person should receive equal treatment under the law. How might we "connect the dots" between that doctrine and that ethics?
    Out & About. Sunday, November 12, I will be preaching and teaching at St. Peter’s Church, 400 N. College St., McKinney, Texas. The services are at 9 and 11 a.m., and the class at 10:10 a.m. will be on Losing Susan.

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The Rev. Canon Dr. Victor Lee Austin is the Theologian-in-Residence for the diocese and is the author of several books including, "Losing Susan: Brain Disease, the Priest's Wife, and the God who Gives and Takes Away."