Late in the fall, my wife and I typically shut down our old Maine farmhouse in the eastern foothills of the White Mountains. We’re not skiers, but even if we were it would be folly for us to keep water in the pipes of our porous 19th century house during the bitter winter months. We once rented out the place for the winter, and the pipes froze all the time, even with the furnace on and the wood stove blazing. Still, two or three times during the winter months we do travel up to that frigid house for a couple of days. Sometimes I wonder why.
It’s all the more puzzling when I reflect about what we have to do in order to travel there and what we have to do while we’re there, simply to maintain ourselves. Our Prius barely handles the up and down rural roads, covered as they often are with snow and ice. Once we arrive, I have to chop our way some twenty feet to the front door through iced-over drifts. Then we lug in not only our modest provisions, but a dozen gallons of water for drinking and cooking. As soon as possible, we begin to burn precious stacks of firewood lavishly in our Franklin Stove, around which we huddle. First thing the next morning, it’s time for me to cut a hole in the ice out back.
We have to use the toilet while we’re there, of course, but there’s no way to flush it during the winter. To address that challenge, I put on my boots, grab hold of a long-handled, flat-edged spade, a small pitcher, and a couple of buckets. I then crunch my way through the deep snow behind the house for a hundred feet or so to a tiny stream that’s totally covered by high drifts. Precariously, I inch my way down the almost indiscernible bank of that stream to the underlying ice, maybe two or three inches thick. Once balanced, I use my spade as an icepick to chop a foot square opening. Then I hunker down over that opening, and contemplate the water that flows there, maybe eight inches deep, moving along even when the temperature has dropped below zero. It must be a comic apparition, were anyone to witness it. There I hover, pitcher in hand, the wind-chill raging around me, bailing out water from beneath the ice, in order to fill the two buckets I’ve brought with me.
Witness me, then, cautiously carrying a single bucket of nearly frozen water through the snowpack to the back door of our house. Then I repeat the process. Once, by the time I arrived at the house with the second bucket, a skin of new ice had already formed on the first bucket. Even when the sun might be beaming down, the ferocious winter temperatures rule the day, and permeate my hands through my double-lined gloves. All this, so that we can flush the toilet when we need to.
But why? Why not remain at home in our well-heated condominium in the Boston area and warmly continue to embrace our comfortable, retired existence? Why push ourselves, in this way, to confront the elements?
Yes, there’s something to be said about this kind of “comfy” experience in Maine, as a friend once suggested: times when “the weather outside is frightful, but the fire is so delightful.” There’s something to be said about “getting away from it all,” no matter where you live. There’s something to be said about what one historian of American culture once called, perhaps sardonically, “the quest for contentment in ‘the bourgeois interior.’” Be that as it may, why Maine in the winter?
One of the factors, on my part, could be my years. Past eighty now, am I secretly regarding myself as some kind of wilderness warrior? Is this an old-age rite or even some masculine thing, to show myself that “I can still do it”? But I think it’s more than stereotypical posturing.
Could the real lure of this adventure, for me at least, be that experience of chopping through the ice and seeing the moving water underneath? What do I see? Even though the stream is only eight inches deep, I’m overcome by an experience of what Paul Tillich called “the dimension of depth.” I took courses with Tillich when I was an undergraduate and beyond, and his voice haunts me to this day.
My God! In chilling midwinter, underneath all those drifts and thick ice, reality is moving. It’s flowing. It’s going somewhere. We don’t live entombed in a world destined for nothing but ice, at the cosmic end of all things. Underneath it all, Being is Becoming, not Stasis.
Granted, this particular encounter with the Depths of Being and Becoming is only twelve inches square and eight inches deep. But it’s a revelation for me when I chop through to the ice, under those arctic conditions, to discover that flowing water. To some passerby, it might look odd. It feels odd. Still, I now regard myself, when I stand there, as contemplating the Depths.
I have only lately come to that possibly comical spiritual conclusion.
Recently on a family outing to celebrate my daughter-in-law’s graduation from a master’s program at Dartmouth College, I was able to find occasion to wander through that institution’s art museum. There I encountered, for the first time, works by the contemporary Finish-American painter, Eric Aho. Many of his striking abstract impressionistic works depict three-by-four foot squares cut through eight-inch ice toward the edge of a sizeable, snow-covered stream. The explanation: those squares in the river ice depict an opening into which someone who has just come from the sauna can plunge.
The curator of that exhibit just didn’t get it. She interpreted those paintings in terms of lines, colors, shapes, and contrasts. “Aho intuitively understood the hole as an abstract motif,” she wrote in the visitor’s guide. “The depth of the ice, the light of the day, the reflectivity or opaqueness of the water, the snow accumulating around the opening, and the angle of the view on the ice cut – all of these elements differentiate the paintings in terms of subject.”
I saw much more. Most of the icy water squares in this exhibit were dark, although one was a bright yellow, as if reflecting sunlight. I found this series of water-squares in the river ice powerful, even overwhelming, a testimony to ultimate meanings, to Darkness and Light. In this respect, I think, I remain a student of Tillich.
Tillich would have celebrated those paintings, much more insightfully than the curator of that exhibit did. For Tillich, there was a darkness, a mystery, even a dangerous character, to our world: Being and Becoming threatened by Non-Being, yet not without moments of mystical elation. Tillich believed – and often demonstrated – that art can reveal those dynamics, that art more generally is a matter of what he called “ultimate concern,” not just a matter of images, colors, contrasts, and lines, however striking they might be configured in any given work of art.
Especially these paintings! The curator made nothing of the sauna experience, presupposed by the artist. Don’t these paintings suggest death and resurrection? Even Baptism? If they’re not intended to recall dying and rising with Christ, surely they suggest some kind of primal death and rebirth from the womb of the Depths.
I have concluded that that’s the vision that claims me, as I chop through that thick ice on that little stream behind our Maine house. It’s a matter of ultimate concern. That’s the underlying reason, doubtless among others, I have decided, why I keep wanting us to undertake those winter excursions, so that I can cut through that ice to contemplate those Depths, comically perhaps, but powerfully for me.
Dedicated to David Gagne.*
* “After running out of the hot sauna, your naked body steaming in the below zero weather, only your feet covered by socks to keep your feet from sticking to the ice, you jump into the hole in the ice (don’t think about it – just do it – thinking is a problem at that point), dip under the water surface two or three times and then climb up the wood ladder leaning against the far edge of the rectangular hole. You always do this in pairs so another set of hands is there to grab you and pull you out in case you panic or somehow end up under the ice. Alas, because of my stents I no longer can do this. Now I tend the fire, sit in the sauna, but can only go out and stand on the small deck of the sauna and let my body steam away the heat until I am cool enough to head back into the sauna again. You actually don’t feel cold when you go into the water – just your body feeling pin prickles and the sucking sound as you try to breathe as you dip under the surface of the water.” — David Gagne via private communication, February 20, 2016
Unveiled at Crossroads on the Charles,
Ninth Floor, Watertown, MA, January 9, 2016
In the beginning God created heaven and earth. And the earth was without form and void. And God said, Let there be light. And God saw the light, that it was good. And God divided the waters into those below and those above. And God made two great lights; the greater to preside over the day, the lesser to preside over the night. God made the stars also. And God said, Let there be life to bring forth grass, the herb-yielding seed, and the fruit trees that yield fruit after its kind. And God said, Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creatures that have life and the fowl that may fly above the earth in the open heaven. And there arose great whales and every living creature that moves, which the waters brought forth abundantly, after their kind, and every winged fowl after its kind. And God saw that it was good. And there arose the human creature in God’s own image, male and female. And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth.
– A paraphrase of Genesis 1 from John Lisman’s mural “Creation”
It’s a privilege for me to smash this bottle of words across the hull of this visionary work by my friend, John. I know that he sought counsel from others as he worked on his “Creation,” but he is surely the grand artiste of this remarkable mural. I smash my words over this work with gratitude to John for his willingness to venture far beyond his scholarly specialty as an eminent student of the human brain into the vast and mostly uncharted world of the cosmic imagination.
As I understand it, one day John was doodling at his computer, and he had a vision. For a moment anyway, he left the infinitesimal mysteries of the human brain, and began to contemplate the gargantuan mysteries of the whole cosmos. In due course, I don’t know when, John began to think about the creation narrative of Genesis 1. This turn in his thinking came as no surprise to me, since, although he has apparently distanced himself somewhat from the spiritual traditions of his fathers and mothers, as I know him he is a Rebbe at heart.
Along the way, John also kept interrupting me, again and again, while I was fixated on the New England Patriots’ games we both were watching – interrupting me with questions about Genesis 1. Hence I stand here, in the midst of this company of friends in this hallway, to help celebrate this unveiling. I was there at the beginning, although not always with all my mental capacities.
John wanted to portray a scientific image of our cosmos, I believe, informed by his paraphrase of Genesis 1. What most fascinated him from the start, however, was a phrase from the King James translation of Genesis, “replenish the earth.” The scope of John’s work, then, is both cosmic and humanistic, profoundly cosmic and urgently humanistic, as I read it. In our era, we stand awestruck, and perhaps overwhelmed to the point of spiritual fatigue, with the vastness of our cosmos, both temporal and spatial. Meanwhile, our cosmic home, this precious planet Earth, is at risk, in significant measure due to the greed of the powerful. So, replenishing is the human vocation of these times: replenishing hope for the cosmos, on the one hand, and replenishing hope for all the living creatures of this Earth, ourselves included, on the other. That is the scope of John’s vision.
Be reminded, however, that this kind of a cosmic and humanistic vision stands radically opposed to two major trends in modern western culture.
First, there is the debate between the so-called Creationists and everyone else. They say that Genesis 1 is about saving an ancient cosmology, when, in fact, I believe, God is all the more glorified by the findings of modern scientific cosmology, which John of course takes for granted. The time has come, then, to let the Creationists drift back into the 19th century cave, whence they first emerged.
Second, there is the debate between the cultural critics of Genesis 1 and more recent scholarly interpreters about the issue of anthropocentrism. The critics say that Genesis 1 – and its champions throughout Western history, down to our own day – is basically at fault for the current global ecojustice crisis, driven, as it has been, by a deeply seated and misguided fixation on human needs and human desires. Say the critics: if Genesis 1 is your rudder, if, for you, the whole point of life on earth is what is important for us humans, then you will guide our planetary civilization into a maelstrom of death.
Some elements of Genesis 1 lend themselves to that kind of critique, especially if the interpreter happens to be identified intellectually or otherwise with the spirit of capitalism in the modern west. Replenishing the earth, for example, is only part of Genesis 1:27. This is whole text: “God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill [replenish] the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” (NRSV) Not for nothing does John not quote the full text. Not for nothing does he leave us just with the phrase replenish the earth.
But I want to make a case that John is right in his paraphrase and that the many cultural critics of Genesis 1 are wrong. To this end, let me begin by calling your attention to this amazing confession of Genesis 1, the phrase “and God saw that it was good.” We hear that phrase no fewer than six times (4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 24). This suggests a Divine affirmation for creatures, in themselves. I have called this, in my writings, “the integrity of nature.” All creatures, from the greatest to the least, have value for God in themselves. They are not the scenery for our world. They are not the property for our machinations. It was no coincidence, then, that St. Francis based his celebrated Song of All the Creatures on Psalm 148, which itself is closely related to the traditions we meet in Genesis 1. In the spirit of Genesis 1, St. Francis celebrated the integrity of nature.
Note further that in Genesis 1:3l, God is depicted as seeing everything that God has made, and seeing that everything is very good. Some historically influential Western interpretations of that text have been obvious misinterpretations, suggesting that when God had finally created humans, God saw the humans and then, in God’s eyes, everything was very good, as if the whole purpose of the universe was the emergence of humans. Wrong.
Then let me address the famous dominion text, Genesis 1:28, which John’s paraphrase omits – for good reason, I believe. Let me focus on the word dominion itself. If you see this word through the eyes of Adam Smith you will of course read the word to mean develop and exploit the Earth, for that’s what the spirit of capitalism requires. But if you catch your breath, step back, and read the word in context, you may be surprised.
Okay. Humans are given dominion over the earth, Gen. 1:28. But notice Gen. 1:18, too: God creates the sun and the moon and gives dominion “over the day and the night.” The same word is used in both texts. Which is to suggest that the word dominion means here: not exploiting other creatures, but a kind of presiding – the word that John uses in his paraphrase. Think of the High Priest presiding over the liturgy of the Temple. Or consider a conductor presiding over a symphony orchestra. This kind of “dominion” is soft and cooperative, encouraging and eliciting. So the sun and the moon preside over the day and the night. So the human creatures preside over other living creatures of the Earth.
I want to close here with a reference to another Genesis creation text, Genesis 2:15. Why did God place the human creature in the Garden? What is the human raison d’etre? The usual translation is this: God places humans on the good earth to till it and to keep it. A wonderful translation for the world of Adam Smith! Make the land productive! In dramatic contrast, the correct translation is to serve and protect it. This text, rightly translated, thus bolsters the kind of meanings I’ve identified in Genesis 1 concerning so-called human dominion over the earth. It also supports John’s use of the traditional King James Version English, calling us humans to replenish the Earth. To care and to serve, says Genesis 2. To replenish, says John, in his own suggestively archaic way.
With such understandings, I now salute the cosmic imagination and the ecological humanism that I believe informs John Lisman’s vision of The Creation. And I invite all who care about God’s good creation to do so the same.
Prepared for Lutherans Restoring Creation Commentary (lutheransrestoringcreation.org)
Lectionary Series B 2014-2015
September 27, October 4, October 11
A series honoring St. Francis of Assisi
Note: Sunday, October 4, 2015 is the Festival of St. Francis. This series affords the preacher an opportunity to address the texts of the three successive Sundays with St. Francis in mind.
Themes: Sept. 27, “St. Francis: Prophet of God,” Oct. 4, “St. Francis: Child of God,” Oct. 11, “St. Francis: Man of Wealth.”
— Pope Francis, Laudato Si’: http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20150524_enciclica-laudato-si.html. The text of the 2015 papal encyclical.
— Eloi LeClerc, The Canticle of Creatures – Symbols of Union: An Analysis of St. Francis of Assisi, tr. Matthew J. O’Connell (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1970). A study of Francis, focusing on his famous Canticle.
— H. Paul Santmire, “The Life and Significance of Francis of Assisi,” in The Travail of Nature: the Ambiguous Ecological Promise of Christian Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1985), 106-120. A short review of the ecological meaning of St. Francis, in the context of classical Christian thought.
— Augustine Thompson, Francis of Assisi: A New Biography (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2012). Perhaps the best scholarly study of Francis’ life.
Francis: Prophet of God
Pentecost 18 (September 27, 2015)
Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29
St. Francis is everyone’s hero. Most Americans know of him in the form of statues in gardens. There you see, often, Francis represented as preaching to the birds. Such images, however, only tell us part of the truth. Recently, Pope Francis, by his very name, by many of his actions, and by his encyclical Laudato Si’, has made the saint from Assisi even more a center of attention. The historical Francis, however, is an elusive figure, as the historical Jesus, in many ways, is an elusive figure. Much of what we know about Francis comes to us from differing sources: a very few writings of his own and biographical testimonials by his followers, some who were close to him, others who collected his teachings and stories about him, from a variety of sources, some of which are clearly legendary. But we know enough about the historical Francis to understand why he sometimes has been thought of as “a second Jesus.” He was an extraordinary follower of the man from Galilee.
The Hebrew title for the Book of Numbers, “In the Wilderness,” reveals the major themes of this book. It is about the people of Israel journeying from Egypt toward the promised land, and some of their trials and tribulations. There is a generational theme, too, recounting how the first, rebellious, generation gives way to a new, and more promising generation. The book ends with that second generation about to enter the promised land. The final form of the book probably was shaped by the experience of exile in Babylon (586 BCE) and not too long after the people returned to Judah (539 BCE).
St. Francis (1181-1226) frequently claimed such wilderness themes as his own. He was not first and foremost a lover of nature, as he is sometimes portrayed. He was first and foremost, self-consciously a follower of Jesus. Francis exemplified, throughout his ministry, what Dietrich Bonhoeffer in our own time thought of as “The Cost of Discipleship.” Like Jesus, Francis gave up all his worldly goods so that he, Francis, could become a disciple of Jesus. Frequently, also like Jesus, Francis sought out wilderness areas. Indeed, so much did he identify with Jesus that Francis, toward the end of his life, in the wilderness of Mt. Laverna, experienced “the stigmata,” the marks of the crucified Christ, on hands, side, and feet.
But St. Francis was by no means just a wilderness ascetic. He was also a public preacher. Call him a prophet of God. He took his message of repentance and hope for the forgotten ones, like the lepers, to the centers of the cities of his time. In the era of the Crusades, moreover, when the political and religious establishment (above all, St. Bernard) where marshalling resources and rallying people to fight “the infidels,” Francis made a journey of his own to visit with the Sultan, in the name of peace. The purpose of his ministry was to be a prophet for peace, not for war.
In this respect, Francis was like Eldad and Medad who were “prophesying outside the camp.” He called upon all Christians of his time, indeed, to become prophets for peace, for the sake of the little ones of the earth, who had been excluded from the common good. The words of Moses about Eldad and Medad could easily have been Francis’ own: “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them” (Numbers 11:29).
And Francis was controversial, as a matter of course. It began, early in his ministry, when he ventured outside the walls of his own home town, Assisi, to be with the lepers, who had been forced to live there, in isolation, vulnerable to the elements, and without easy access to food, water, and shelter that the people in the towns enjoyed.
As a prophetic figure in this sense, Francis was as a matter of course perceived as a threat to the established order, especially when people from all walks of life began to follow his example. He was joined by many followers and cheered by crowds in the cities, expectantly listening to him. But, of course, the established society of his day, like all established societies, did not want things to change. They did not want any Eldad or Medad prophesying among the common people, outside the walls of established power.
The story is told of a young Christian who went on a mission trip to work with some impoverished farmers in Nicaragua. There her life was transformed. She came back from her trip and began to tell members of the congregation which had sent her there to join with her in behalf of “the liberation of the oppressed.” Even her own Pastor seemed to shy away from her. But she persisted and eventually was marginalized in her own congregation. If only she had a Moses around, who could have celebrated her prophetic work, “outside the camp”!
If only, too, the members of her own congregation and her Pastor had understood the Gospel story from Mark 9, where we hear John saying to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” (Mark 9:38) But Jesus replied, “Do not stop him…” The young woman’s pastor could have said to his congregation, “Do not stop her…” And he might have cited the example of Francis who ministered to the lepers outside the walls and visited the Sultan in the name of peace.
Francis did all this in the name of Jesus. He took up his cross in the name of Jesus. He visited the lepers in the name of Jesus. He preached to the multitudes in the name of Jesus. His own body, indeed, was marked by the wounds of Jesus. For Francis, Jesus was the Lord of life and death. Francis’ celebrated love of nature can only be understood in light of that, the deepest love of his life, for Jesus. In this sense, the man who preached to the birds was first and foremost, a prophet of God.
St. Francis: Child of God
Pentecost 19 (October 4)
Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12
Francis in many ways was childlike. He spoke with the birds. Like many children, he loved to sing. As he lay dying, he kept singing his Canticle of Creatures. He also invented the Christmas pageant! Toward the end of his life, on Christmas Eve, he brought animals to a makeshift altar near a mountain, where he sponsored an outdoors Eucharist, at which he sang the Gospel. He has been called “God’s Troubadour” (before his conversion to the life of poverty, as a rich young man he had learned to cherish and to sing the songs of courtly love). Above all, he loved animals, even worms, even wolves. Perhaps more than any other saint that we know, Francis embodied the words of Jesus: “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.” (Mark 10:14)
If Francis was a prophet of God, albeit outside of the camp (see discussion of the texts for Pentecost 18), he was all the more so a child of God. This is a theme, however, that is not always unambiguously attested in the Scriptures. On the contrary, it would appear that another image is more prominent in the Bible – lordship. God is King and Jesus is Lord. The man is “the head” of the woman. Humans are given lordship over nature. Where does the child fit in all this?
The texts for this Sunday apparently accent lordship in many ways. According to Genesis 2, the man names all the animals, as if he is the boss. The woman, made from the man’s rib, is brought to the man, as if he’s the one who’s really in charge. In Psalm 8, we are told that humans are but a little lower than angels and given “mastery” over the works of God’s hands, indeed that all things have been put under the human being’s feet, sheep and oxen, even the wild beasts. The Letter to the Hebrews cites this Psalm and says that all things are subjected to Jesus. Is there a suggestion here not only that Jesus is Lord, but that he “lords it over” all things?
The Gospel of Mark seems to present us with the teaching of Genesis about marriage all over again, although it does suggest a certain equality between the man and the woman, insofar as the state of being divorced is concerned. Still, where is the innocence and the joy and the singing of the child in all this? Marriage here seems to be more rules and regulations, than self-giving love and joy.
Nevertheless, the Gospel reading may hold the answer, not explicitly, but more in terms of its juxtaposition of texts. Mark seems to string together various teachings of Jesus. On the one hand, here is his teaching about divorce. On the other hand, here is his teaching about childlike faith. There is no logical or even narrative connection between the two accounts. They are just – strung together. Jesus taught this and Jesus taught that. If so, then this question: which theme is to be interpreted in terms of the other? Which is more important for the Gospel’s sake, lordship or child-like-ness?
The answer may seem foreclosed here, because the text about the children seems to stand alone. Apart from the Gospels, one reputable scholar has noted, “I cannot find that early Christian literature exhibits the slightest sympathy towards the young.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, centuries of Christian interpreters have opted to make lordship the primary image for interpreting the Scriptures, not child-like-ness. But what if Jesus meant what he said when he placed a child before them and said that to such as these belongs the Kingdom of God? Children, not lords are the point of it all. Could this thought possibly open our eyes to a different reading of our texts?
Interestingly, Genesis 2 tells us that “the man gave names” to all the animals. In the past, this has typically been interpreted as the man lording it over the animals. On the contrary, a more careful reading of this text shows that “giving a name” is an act of love, an act of bonding, even friendship. Think of Francis here. In the Hebrew Bible, when God calls you by name, it means that God loves you. So perhaps in this case, Adam naming the animals. Also, why was Adam put in the Garden in the first place? To “till it and keep it”? To exercise mastery over the garden? That is the received translation of Genesis 2:15. The Hebrew actually says, however, that the man was put in the Garden to “serve and protect it.” And the word “serve” here is from the same family as the word for “Servant of God” in II Isaiah. Doesn’t that sound like Francis relating to the animals by serving them?
When it comes to the text from Hebrews, which is essentially a lordship text, we are faced with a fundamental interpretive decision. Is this the primary text for interpreting the mission of Jesus or are we to look to another, Philippians 2:5-11, which envisions Jesus Christ primarily as the Servant of God and then “Lord” only as the “Servant of all” as the primary text?
All of which is an invitation to read the Scriptures with the eyes of Francis, that astounding child of God.
St. Francis: Man of Wealth
Pentecost 20 (October 11)
Amos 5:6-7, 10-15
Francis grew up the son of a rich cloth merchant. It was assumed that he would “sow some wild oats” as a youth, and then settle down into a plush career in his father’s business. Instead, Francis plunged into what we moderns sometimes call “an identity crisis.” He became profoundly troubled by his own riches and his own raucous lifestyle. Francis became a penitent and took to living in the woods or in an abandoned church. Things came to a head, when the local Bishop, Guido, who had befriended Francis, called Francis and Francis’ father, Pietro, to Guido’s church, to effect a reconciliation. At that meeting, as the historian Auguste Thompson tells us, “Francis withdrew into an adjoining room, removed the fine clothing typical of his family’s station, and stripped down to the penitent’s hair shirt he was wearing underneath. He came out and put his old garments at his father’s feet.” He then renounced his father, in the name of “Our Father, who art in heaven,” and began what was to become a lifelong ministry as a penitent, preacher, and servant of God’s little ones.
By most standards, Francis made himself poor. By his own standards, however, Francis considered himself to be a rich man. But of what do true riches consist? This was a tough question in Francis’ day. It is even more difficult for many Christians today, particularly those who have benefited so much by living in affluent circles in the U.S. Today’s texts help us to wrestle with this question. Of what do true riches consist?
The prophet Amos brings a harsh judgment against those who benefit unjustly from the kind of riches that Francis left behind: “Ah, you that turn justice to wormwood, and bring righteousness to the ground…, you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy at the gate.” It is tempting to think here of the top one-percent in the U.S. today and what appears to be their unjust share of the world’s wealth. But from a global perspective, most Americans today are among the world’s affluent. Is there any hope for us, then? Amos seems to think so. This is what he calls us to do: “Seek good not evil, that you may live; and so the LORD, the God of hosts, will be with you….”
And who is this God? The God of grace, of course. So the Psalmist prays: “May the graciousness of the LORD our God be upon us; prosper the work of our hands….” And the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews calls us to approach God’s “throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”
The problem here, however, seems to be – Jesus. Surely, Jesus does affirm the unconditional grace of God, attested to by the Psalmist and by Hebrews. But Jesus apparently wants more, as we see in our Markan text. A man runs up to him (the man is eager; is he feeling guilty?) and asks what he has to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus checks him out. It turns out that the man has been numbered among “the good people,” those who keep God’s commandments and follow God’s ways, presumably like most worshippers in any American church on any given Sunday. Actually, the man seems to be perplexed that anyone would ask him about his own life, how he follows the ways of God.
Jesus understood the man. He loved the man, we’re told. And this was a great love, on Jesus’ part. The Greek word for love here, is agape, pointing to the self-giving love of God himself (the same word is used in John 3:16, “For God so loved the world….”). Out of this boundless love, Jesus says to the man: “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” The man, we are told, “was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” One can wonder what preachers in affluent American congregations will make of this text, if they will deal with it at all.
Soon after this, Jesus says to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God.” Like those American preachers, we may imagine, the disciples were perplexed. But Jesus tightens his point even further. “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” Like many (most?) affluent American Christians who hear these words, and like many preachers, too, we may imagine, the disciples seem to throw up their hands. “Then who can be saved?,” they ask. Jesus responds with what must be regarded as one of the most frustratingly opaque, but ultimately hopeful promises he ever made: “…for God, all things are possible.”
All this grace around us given for us who are affluent and given with the promise that God will find a way for us to be wealthy toward God and not needful of the money we think is ours! What are we affluent Christians really to do? Francis wrestled with these questions and he took them literally. He gave away all his wealth and abandoned the social status that went with that wealth. Some affluent Christians today will surely think about doing the same. Some have. But what about the rest of us? What are we to do?
A couple of commonplaces of worldly wisdom come to mind. This is the first: don’t just sit there feeling guilty, do something. Second, a more congenial piece of advice: a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. What might that something, that single step, be? Here both Jesus and Francis can offer some counsel. Both of them focused their ministry on the little ones, those forgotten by the dominant wealthy society. Francis, more particularly, fleshed out Jesus’ concern for the little ones, by explicitly including the creatures of nature in his ministry. Francis self-consciously and publicly loved the creatures of nature, with the kind of agape love that he had learned from his Lord, Jesus.
One caveat: a close reading of both the lives of Jesus and Francis shows that, for them, the little ones who are suffering are so burdened, at least in some significant measure, because of the power of unjust human institutions, the kind railed against by the prophet Amos. For Amos, it was the banking system (as it were) that caught his attention. For us, it could be the banking system. It could also be global corporate powers, such as those that promote climate change. Think global energy production and the unending quest for profits, on the one hand, and rising ocean waters that threaten to engulf millions of poor people living on low-lying lands in Bangladesh, on the other.
But never mind the overwhelming challenge of such issues, for now. Just do something. Take that first – or next – step. Christian participants in the great climate change protest march of tens of thousands in New York City in the fall of 2014, even affluent ones who, like everyone else, had nothing to offer but their bodies and their songs, report experiencing a palpable joy, for them a joy born of the grace of God experienced at that moment. Perhaps that was the same joy that Francis experienced, only all the more so, because he was such a wealthy man. What steps does this situation mandate us to take?
They asked me what I thought. An academic and church consortium brought me to lovely Adelaide in southern Australia in March of 2015 to present a paper on ecotheology and spirituality. That I did (the paper will be published in due course). Along the way they also asked each of the conferees to take some quiet time to reflect about his or her own spirituality of nature. Have I thought about anything else the last sixty years? But I did what I was told.
I found the time for my own reflection when all the other conferees were off visiting wineries in that, one of Australia’s richest wine-producing regions. I absented myself from that trip, spoilsport that I was, since, following my simple, if not simple-minded, practice of many years, I had “given up” imbibing any kind of alcohol during Lent. It would have been boring for me, and all the more so for all the others, to go wine-tasting and then not taste wine.
Left behind, that was a good setting for reflection. The elegant hotel which was the conference center had once been the site of a winery. But the land in which all those vines grew in that region told a different story. That land, of course, had once been Aboriginal land, in that region an often repressed truth that the conference planners announced at every opportunity. Beautiful wine country! The fruits of civilization! But the blood of peoples who had lived in Australia for fifty thousand years had been spilled on that land.
The first chapter of my own theological reflections about nature began when I was wrestling with a similar cultural contradiction, in a North American context. In my 1970 book, Brother Earth: Nature, God, and Ecology in a Time of Crisis, I identified a schizophrenia between Nature and Civilization, which pitted one against the other. That pathology is well illustrated by two great American Henrys: Henry Thoreau and Henry Ford. Thoreau thought that Civilization – or “the city” – is dirty, artificial, and corrupt. Hence he fled to what he perceived to be the vital and renewing embrace of Nature. Ford thought that the promise of the human future was located in the midst of the machinations of Civilization. He cared very little whether or not Nature was raped in the process.
In Brother Earth, I argued that a prophetic reading of biblical texts can show us a way to heal that cultural schizophrenia, a way to give all, rich and poor, black and white, male and female, and all earth-creatures, too, the blessings of both Nature and Civilization, without denigrating either.
Behind that theological argument, I had willy nilly been a victim or a perpetrator of that cultural schizophrenia myself. In the years of my youthful innocence (as it were), I lived that schizophrenia. As a boy, I had a passion for Nature. I loved to garden with my parents. Perhaps I was closest to them when we were working with the earth and harvesting its fruits. I also loved our family vacations. In those post-World War II days, we visited many of the nation’s great national parks in the western U.S., Yellowstone, Glacier, and Yosemite, among others. On the other hand, those were the years of the Eisenhower presidency, the era of “Peace, Progress, and Prosperity.” I was much concerned with politics in those years, and I championed Eisenhower’s causes, such as his launching of the great interstate highway system. I was a living exemplar of that very deadening cultural schizophrenia I diagnosed in Brother Earth, loving nature and loving the society that desecrated nature.
Fast forward to 2014, when I published Before Nature: A Christian Spirituality. In that book I narrate my life story, how I have tried to respond to the claims of biblical prophecy: to affirm both the rights of Nature and the rights of Civilization, particularly the rights of the poor of the earth, in a context where the forces of so-called Civilization are desecrating the earth and the poor of the earth, to the point of no return. But I am not sure whether I have truly taken to heart the voice of biblical prophecy that I identified in 1970. I am not sure that I myself have been healed.
I live comfortably with Nature, cultivated and wild, during most of the summer months. I live comfortably with Civilization and all its blessings and all its problems, during most of the winter months. I realize that the blood of Native Americans was once spilled on the land of New England, where I garden and walk in the woods during the summer. I realize that many of the members of the African-American inner-city church where I worship in Boston during the winter months can easily call to mind the days of the lynching tree, which may not be over (I recently took James Cone’s book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, off a shelf in my study, and read it through, cover to cover, a chilling experience). But I do indeed live comfortably. All of which is to say: whether I am in Australia or the U.S., as I approach my 80th birthday, my own spirituality of nature is still very much a work in progress.
My own book, Before Nature: A Christian Spirituality, is about – nature. But not just nature. It’s also a narrative of my own struggle to believe. In Before Nature, I regularly refer to “the fragile faith” that I’m recommending. For me, nothing’s certain in the world of faith. I point to Martin Luther’s image of the believer as one who, while blindfolded, takes the hand of a guide, in order to cross a high and narrow bridge.
In this respect, I have lately found a soul-mate in Christian Wiman, as he gives an account of his own fragile faith in his scintillating and sometimes painfully narrated testament, My Bright Abyss: Meditations of a Modern Believer (New York: Farar, Straus and Giroux, 2013).
The struggle to believe that I narrate in Before Nature, however, is the struggle of a “once born soul” (William James). Hard pressed by what I understand to be “the eclipse of God” in our times, in my narrative I attempt to make some sense of the faith that has been handed down to me, particularly in the Church’s liturgy, which has always been a given in my life.
Wiman, in contrast, struggles to make some sense of the faith that he’s seeking to claim for the first time. In this sense, he’s a “twice born soul” (again, William James). True, raised a Baptist in rural Texas, he did have a “born again” experience as a boy. But then he left that experience behind as he became a kind of spiritual secularist (my term) for much of his adult life, one who also, along the way, developed a deep passion for poetry and who somehow discovered that he had a calling to be a poet.
My Bright Abyss tells the story about how in the midst of his spiritual secularism – and his successful career as a poet and contributor to publications like The New Yorker – Wiman was led to an overwhelming encounter with the crucified and risen Christ, yet without leaving his spiritual secularism behind. I recommend this elegantly written book. It tells a spiritual story that resonates deeply in my once-born soul.
Here are some quotes from Wiman’s moving narrative, made all the more poignant by his account, along the way, of his struggle with a life-threatening illness.
“To admit that there may be some psychological need informing your return to faith does not preclude or diminish the spiritual imperative, any more than acknowledging the chemical aspects of sexual attraction lessens the mystery of enduring human love. Faith cannot save you from the claims of reason, except insofar as it preserves and protects that wonderful, terrible time when reason, if only for a moment, lost its claim on you.” (7)
“I can see how deeply God’s absence affected my unconscious life, how under me always there was this long fall that pride and fear and self-love at once protected me from and subjected me to. Was the fall into belief or into unbelief? Both. For if grace woke me to God’s presence in the world and in my heart, it also woke me to his absence. I never truly felt the pain of unbelief until I began to believe.” (12)
“Christ speaks in stories as a way of preparing his followers to stake their lives on a story, because existence is not a puzzle to be solved, but a narrative to be inherited and undergone and transformed person by person. He uses metaphors because something essential about the nature of reality – its mercurial solidity, its mathematical mystery and sacred plainness – is disclosed within them.” (90)
“The distance between culture and Christ seems like a modern phenomenon, but I think it’s probably always been the case. Even when Christianity is the default mode of a society, Christ is not. There is always some leap into what looks like absurdity, and there is always, for the one who makes that leap, some cost.” (91)
“Modern spiritual consciousness is predicated upon the fact that God is gone, and spiritual experience, for many of us, amounts mostly to an essential, deeply felt and necessary, but ultimately inchoate and transitory feeling of oneness or unity with existence. It is mystical and valuable, but distant. Christ, though, is a shard of glass in your gut. Christ is God crying I am here, and here not only in what exalts and completes and uplifts you, but here in what appalls, offends, and degrades you, here in what activates and exacerbates all that you would call not-God. To walk through the fog of God toward the clarity of Christ is difficult because of how unlovely, how ‘ungodly’ that clarity often turns out to be.” (121)
“It is the absoluteness of meaninglessness that Christianity, as I understand it, inhabits and inflects, the shock and stark violence of the cross that discloses the living Christ. Revelation, like creation, arises not merely out of nothingness but by means of it.” (136)
“I believe in grace and chance, at the same time. I believe in absolute truth and absolute contingency, at the same time. And I believe that Christ is the seam soldering together these wholes that our half vision – and our entire clock-bound, logic-locked way of life – shapes as polarities.” (164)
“Sometimes it seems that I can happily hold all Christian tenets in an active abeyance, a fusion of faith and skepticism that includes and transcends literal and figurative truths, if I can hold fast to one indestructible fact (fact!?): Christ’s resurrection. This event answers every impulse, fear, and need of my imagination, quiets and clarifies the raucous onslaught of time, suffers me – the mute, destitute, unselfed seed of being that is most me – to understand what suffering is, and what it means. But no. The reality wavers, the image fades like a reflection in the water, for under every assertion about God, including the one I am making at this very minute, the ground gives way, and once again I am left with the vital and futile truth that to live in faith is to live like the Jesus lizard, quick and nimble on the water into which a moment’s pause would make it sink.” (164)
“The problem with so much thinking about Christ’s resurrection and the promise that lies therein is the self-concern that is attendant upon, and often driving, this thought: resurrection matters because we matter, our individual selves; it matters because it is for us. But Christ’s death and resurrection ought to be a means of freeing us from precisely this kind of thinking, this notion of, and regard for, the self, which is the source of so much of our suffering and unhappiness.” (167)