Being Adrift

Throughout the world the Divine
has been given many names.
In the Church we have learned to say
Father, Son and Holy Spirit. AMEN

I still remember that it happened shortly after I retired in 1997. Marking the 20th anniversary of his election as Pope, John Paul II wrote an encyclical. In it John Paul painted a picture of a modern world in which people wander without a sense of purpose. This is what the Pope wrote:

Everything is reduced to opinion,
and there is a sense of being adrift.
People rest content with partial and provisional truths,
no longer seeking to ask radical questions
about the meaning and ultimate foundation
of human, personal and social existence.

The Pope was offering for the world the certainty and completeness of Catholic doctrine as the plumb-line for truth.

A Vatican commentator had this to say about the Pope's anniversary message for Catholics: "It's a call to rebel against the postmodern tendency not to have faith in the truth. People today tend to think there is no universal truth, but that each person has his own. The Pope is saying that's not right."

That moment stayed with me because I was so totally offended by this attempted suffocation of truth searching. As someone schooled first in the discipline of science before studying theology, I had spent my entire ministry working for both social change and theological change. All of us have a great interest in truth. What becomes distinctive about each of us is our hospitality to the search for truth.

It is an important question to ask: Where is our certainty? Are we certain that the search for truth must be relentless? Or does our certainty center about truth being already known? Do we think we have the truth in hand? More specifically, as Christians, are we the holders of the truth or are we, like all other seekers, holders of a truth? What each of us knows as truth is vital to us. But we need to keep in mind that all of us know only a portion of the truth. We also need to remember that no portion of the truth can cancel any other portion.

Thus, for example, what a truth is for a Christian cannot cancel out what a truth is for a Muslim.

The philosopher David Ray Griffin has noted that the modern western world arose from a clash of two spiritualities. One was a spirituality of creativity. The spirituality of creativity originated in the scientific and humanistic Renaissance of the latter 15th century. The other spirituality that helped form the modern western world was a spirituality of obedience. The spirituality of obedience stemmed from the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. These two spiritualities - one creativity, the other obedience - reached a cultural compromise. The spirituality of creativity would inform only scientific and artistic life. The spirituality of obedience would inform religious and moral life. As a result the unfortunate guidance of the western religions has always been to retreat to the past. When faced with change, the tendency of the Church has always been to return to the tradition of the Fathers.

And so it was that John Paul, a passionate prophet of compassion for the suffering of the world, could ignore certain sorts of suffering in his call to the Catholic Church to return to tradition. At that time he made changes in canon law, stamping out debate on a wide range of passionately discussed issues. Two of those issues were euthanasia and the ordination of women. The pontiff went on to warn that those who dissented from these newly minted articles of faith would be subject to what he termed 'just punishment.'

The call for debate and discussion of theology within the Episcopal Church has been advanced for several decades by the retired Bishop of Newark, the Rt. Rev. John Shelby Spong. Shortly before he retired Bishop Spong published A Call for a New Reformation. The bishop characterized twelve theses as an outline for a badly needed open debate throughout the church. Let me just sample one of his twelve theses. Bishop Spong says this: "The view of the cross as the sacrifice for the sins of the world is a barbarian idea based on primitive concepts of God and must be dismissed."

I don't know how that statement strikes you, but I believe it is right on target. The Cross is the central Christian symbol of the human transformation brought by suffering, not some cosmic debt paid by God's grace. Yet invariably in our Holy Eucharist we either say or sing Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world. I'd be surprised if everyone was re-interpreting that brief anthem in search of expressing how the presence of a Christ giving of himself can transform others. Consequently the old tradition gets repeated and reinforced and change is difficult to achieve.

I should also remind you that when Spong's twelve theses were brought to the attention of our House of Bishops, fifty-three of our bishops declared the theses, in their words, "outside the realm of Christian discourse." So it is not just the Pope who wants to silence any searching for truth - fifty-three of our bishops were more interested in guarding and defending the truth rather than searching for new expressions of truth. They rely on a spirituality of obedience rather than trusting a spirituality of creativity.

Let's turn to this morning's scriptures. In the lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures, a close reading of Isaiah is instructive about change and the search for truth. Isaiah is a poetic spokesman for the seemingly unendurable suffering of his people. He wrote in the late eighth century when Jerusalem was under siege by the Assyrians. Like all the great prophets, Isaiah lived in a time of turmoil. Speaking to a culture that believed in a warrior God, Isaiah evoked the peaceful image of a vineyard given in love by a compassionate God. It is, of course, the very same image used by the early church in the reading this morning from Matthew to establish the meaning of the crucifixion. The story also contributed to the emerging definition of Jesus as the biological Son of God.

But back to Isaiah's image of the vineyard. Through the careful work of the vintner, the vineyard was primed to be a fertile place with everything ready to yield fine grapes. But the vineyard yielded wild grapes instead. So the loving God is displeased and feels disrespected by an ungracious people. God looked for a crop of justice and saw the people murdering each other. He looked for a harvest of righteousness and heard only the moans of victims. Isaiah believed it was a time of dying. He envisioned the death of a culture, a society, a tradition. He watched his world dying and he felt pain. What pained him even more was the failure of his contemporaries to notice, to care, to acknowledge, or to admit.

On the other hand, in this morning's reading, Isaiah also sets forth in his oracle an understanding of God which is utterly foreign to the modern mind. Isaiah, convinced a people then that God is in total control of all the events of the world. Isaiah is certain that the severe drought that threatens all forms of life has been God's punishment for Judah's many misbehaviors. It's a rare person today who believes that the lack of any rain or anything of what we term as weather is being determined in any way by God, let alone used as punishment. Isaiah's images are striking and poetic. His theology, however, about the nature of God is primitive, in today's world an anachronism.

Isaiah's usefulness is to faith, the need for all to have confidence in the moral coherence of the world. Isaiah believes passionately that there is a fiber of justice and righteousness that persists in the historical process and public life. In the end that fiber cannot be violated, mocked or nullified. Always arguing against cynicism, Isaiah always appeals for change. it is an appeal which is echoed today, as they say, from Main Street to Wall Street.

It seems to me that all of the Church needs to be part of a thorough-going search for truth which recovers a spirituality of creativity. This is not to forsake obedience. Sometimes our most creative response might be obedience. But strict obedience to the past and to tradition closes us off to a creative and complicated God. The strongest component of God's love is the ability to influence others creatively. God can and does maximize the creativity of others. God's love has the power of persuasion. Not a power over others. It is God's power in them. God's power to influence us is just that. It is the love to enter us and influence us. Thereby God evokes the highest receptive, self-creative, and persuasive power in us.

—Fr. Bruce Eberhardt