An Island of Convivencia

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The history between Islam and Christianity is a long, sad tale with more than its share of misunderstanding, hardness of heart, and, sometimes, violence, be it of Crusade or Jihad.  But there have also been islands, interludes, intermezzos, of peace and conversation. I do not mean periods of pluralism, as the modern age often understands it, in which their respective truth claims would be blunted or obscured; on the contrary these provided the grounds for lively debate..  In several cases the respite for speaking and hearing included Judaism as well. One such as the Abbasid Caliphate centered in Baghdad in the 9th century, with its ‘House of Wisdom’. Another was the medieval period of what was in al- Andalus (Spain) called ‘la convivencia’, ‘the common life,’ where, for example, Muslim, Jewish, and Christian scholars rediscovered the philosophy of Aristotle.  Convivencia has not been the norm, but it has offered a shining vision of what the relationship could be on the way to the Last Day, on which all three traditions believe that God will have His final say.

So what is newsworthy? In our time especially, the loudest, and the most shocking or conflictual wins.  But sometimes the truly newsworthy manages a paragraph or two amidst the rest.  A few days ago, down a dark side street in Baghdad, with a perimeter set by a militia, an old man in a white cassock approaches the door of a modest home and knocks.  Another old man, in a black gown and turban, greets him at the door. They then sit in a bare room, drink tea together, and talk.  They were Pope Francis and the Shiite Ayatollah al-Sistani.  Painful history ancient and recent, deep theological difference, and fraught political implications swirled around them both. Still, they honored each other- Francis by coming to his house, al-Sistani by standing to greet him, both by sharing the repast, all of it a kind of sacrament of convivencia.  (When I heard of the meeting, I wondered if the Pope had in mind the meeting of Saint Francis and Saladin in Cairo in the early 13th century, also a surprisingly irenic conversation).  Francis advocated for the beleaguered Iraqi Christian community, and the Ayatollah set out the traditional Islamic grounds for their protection and right to worship. At the conclusion, the accompanying risks and tensions had not evaporated magically, but, something remarkable had taken place. Those two old men had articulated what was best in the historic relation of their community of faith to its neighbor. 

You and I do not live with the same level of tragedy and volatility as those two spiritual leaders. But I believe that the way of convivencia is the road God is laying out ahead of us in so many moments and places near as well as far.  We hold to the Creed with conviction and reasoned appeal.  We are also ready to sit and drink tea with our counterpart. Together we articulate the urgent importance for a space in which each can speak and pray freely.  The Port of Peace,  Dar es Salaam, el Puerto de Paz, if only for that place and time, becomes a sign of hope. We are reminded of the willingness of our Lord to sit down at table with those others thought unlikely. Friend and neighbor are vocations inseparable from evangelist, advocate, deacon, healer, and teacher, reaching back, with the guidance of Scripture, to what is best in our history. Lord, may it be so on every area of our lives.  Amen.  +GRS

Perpetual Forge of Idols

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So John Calvin (whom I have been reading for my course at Nashotah House) described the human heart.  Here he is hearkening back to the first chapters of Genesis, which is where we should start too.  My high school motto was ‘finis origine pendet,’ ‘the end depends on the beginning,’ and that is true of the Bible too. Everything (except the name of Jesus of course), is already there.  God is before everything created, which He made by His Word without any help from us, and which he remains sovereign over.  As for us, we are made ‘in His image,’ which I take to mean that we are the creatures capable of and intended for His worship, on behalf of the whole creation. In other words,  we are not part of the divine, nor possess any spark of His in us innately. We were created for this relationship with Him.  Inherently we are not self-standing, and without him we are unsettled, searching (what Augustine famously calls ‘restless’).  Of course the narrative turns in chapter 3 to the negative inverse of this in the story of the fall. Our sinfulness has, because of our being ‘in the image,’ a particular shape, namely the distortion of this Godwardness.  Satan whispers to Adam that we should not obey, since God is only keeping us from being ‘like gods.’  And that is what the human heart really wants, the root of our corruption, the displacement of Creator by the created.  To create ourselves, to be the masters of life and death, to worship ourselves: the word for this in the Bible is ‘idolatry,’ but it is not simply what pagan foreigners do, or our pagan ancestors did, but rather the ‘flip side’ of every human heart, the evil double of ‘the better angels of our nature’ (Lincoln). To return for a moment to Calvin, before he spoke of us as ‘forges of idols,’ he spoke of our possession of the ‘sense of the divine,’ what is sometimes called the ‘God shaped hole in the heart.’  Alas, they go together.

Idolatry is the term we as Christians, (whom the Epistle to Diognetus in the early Church called the ‘soul’ of society) need to meditate on at this time in our nation’s life.  I have in mind the painful sight of the flags with JESUS and a fish symbol amidst the other insignia and banners, among them white nationalist and anti-Semitic and fascist, displayed by those who stormed the Capitol.   The identification of the faith with any ideology or tribalism or nationalism is always misguided, but this one drastically so.

But if we start with the Biblical witness, and follow the thread theologically, there is more to be said, and the more is addressed to each of us where we live! Idolatry is not only what characterizes someone else, nor is it simply left behind upon conversion.  As with the Pharisee and the tax-collector in the parable, it is too easy to parcel out ‘image’ and ‘fall’ in this way.  It is as forgiven sinners, as recovering idolaters, that we live as Christians. If I may repair again to  Reformation doctrine, Luther emphasized that we are Christians who remain ‘at once justified and sinners,’ every day of our lives, ever dependent on grace from the sinless One, growing spiritually at best inch by inch, ever suspicious of our own idolatrous hearts.  I have those words of Luther’s, simul Justus et peccator, engraved on my episcopal ring, even as I recall the words with which every auricular confession concludes, ‘and pray for me a sinner.’  Amidst all the hard reckoning ahead, may this truth pervade our lives as the Church, for only so can we be the instrument of reconciliation which our Lord intends us to be.



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Complete the Race (II Timothy 4:17)

At the end of our vacation we find ourselves in Chicago for its Marathon weekend (the fastest, I have read this morning, perhaps because it is cool and relatively level). Marathons offer many good things. You can see world-class athletes from places like Ethiopia and Kenya. There is a feel of fiesta with signs by family members, getups by some for-fun runners, and food for sale.

But as I looked out my hotel window at 7:30 a.m., I watched the race of competitors who have lost legs or their use. Wheeling vehicles by arm for 26 miles means serious fitness and determination.

Those competitors were to me, this morning, a symbol of the Church too. For each is wounded. The larger family cheers them on. Each by grace has risen up to run the race. Ahead is the goal, the prize, the welcome home. We find the companionship of Jesus the Lord, there, and along the route too.