Thursday, April 21, 2011

Haunted by Relationality

Carter Heyward recently gave a lecture at Episcopal Divinity School. I was glad to meet her, having been away from our school during her tenure there, and I was very impressed with the lecture. I am glad that it is now posted on the 99 Brattle blog and I recommend it.

The idea that some of us are haunted by relationality originated with Jewish theologian Marc Ellis. Carter's lecture got me me thinking - again - about the strange and perhaps rather empty victory of the high Christology John's Gospel during the first centuries of the Church's life. When I read Jesus saying, "The Father and I are one" I hear it relationally. But in the world in which the philosophy of Plato was so dominant, theologians tended to hear it as a statement about substance. Thus we get in the Creed "one in being with Father," or, as the new English translation of the Eucharist for the Roman Catholic Church phrases it, "consubstantial with the Father." I suspect that quite a few worshippers will find that hard to say, and even more difficult to understand.

We don't talk or think about the world and our place in it in with the philosophical language of Plato. Not many of us - outside the chem lab - think about the nature of things in terms of substances. We are more likely to be interested in relationships, in how things and people interact with one another. And that, I think, is how the very first followers of Jesus thought about things. What was so apparent about Jesus was his relationship with God, a relationship which he wanted to share with others, with everyone. While in the pictures of Jesus we get from the other Gospel accounts we can see this relationship, in John's account we see it in bold face. For the Johannine community the relationship of Jesus and the Father, of their being one, was of central importance. Explaining that in terms of substance, speaking of Jesus as being consubstantial with the Father, may have been appropriate in those early centuries, but clinging to that language now makes little sense. What does make sense is a relational Christology, the kind of Christology that we find in the writings of theologians like Carter Heyward.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Making the Far Near

One of the joys of retiring on Massachusett's North Shore is that I'm close enough to audit a course each term at Episcopal Divinity School. Last term's course was on the Gospel of John; this term's is Globalization: Mission , Ethicsand Theology. One of the readings for this week is an essay by Thomas W. Walker in Global Neighbors: Christian Faith and Moral Obligation in Today's Economy. In the essay Walker examines the ideas of far and near in the Parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke's Gospel. In that parable, robbers come near to the man travelling on the road between Jericho and Jerusalem, they become for a time his physical neighbors, but their actions are not at all what the Torah demands of neighbors. Having robbed and beaten him, they leave him for dead by the side of the road. Two passers-by, a Priest and a Levite, keep themselves far from the man, each passing by on the other side of the road. Finally, a Samaritan, one whom the Jewish community would have seen as someone culturally and religously far from them, draws near, showing compassion in binding his wounds, paying for his continued careat an inn, and promising to return to pay whatever more needs to be paid. 

The parable, so typical of Jesus' teaching, confronts its hearers, including us, with the challenge of seeing the world in a new way. How might we begin to see that those whom we see as far from us - geographically, culturally, ethnically, ideologically - are those whom God wants us to make near ones, our neighbors? How might the needs of these neighbors, as well as their gifts and great beauty, be considered as we make decisions about our lives? Not in the same way or to the same degree that the needs of our families and communities have a claim on us, but in some measure.

A central challenge of globalization for Christians, and perhaps for others as well, is making the far near, seeing ourselves as inextricably connected to everyone in this global village. We share, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has said, in a covenant of fate with the whole of creation, partners one with another in the work of healing a fractured world. The stakes are simply too great for us to retreat from the challenge into ethnic or religious or ideological or geographic isolation.

Monday, April 4, 2011

The End of Silence

I'd like to claim that the nearly two months since my last post was intentional, perhaps the result of a decision to refrain from posting in order to spend more time in prayer. Not even close. It was simply a matter of getting distracted and not being sure that I had anything at all worth writing. And that hasn't changed much, but I am writing.

Yesterday my friend and colleague Paul preached about the healing of the man born blind in John 9. Part of what Paul said was that we don't get to see what lies ahead when we begin something new. Neither of us cold have known when we graduated from Episcopal Divinity School in 1972 where our work as priests would lead us. We couldn't see the creation of food pantries and soup kitchens and homeless shelters that would be part of each of our lives in very different communities. And, as he was preaching, I thought that it was probably a very good thing that we couldn't. Some of the things that we come to see we would not have been unable to handle earlier in our lives, especially things about ourselves. Some of the challenges that we took on would have been impossible tasks for us in our early years and it may be providential that we didn't those challenges when we were fresh out of EDS.

Something that Paul didn't talk about - or, at least, I didn't hear him - was something I find interesting about the story. After making a paste of dirt and saliva and spreading it on the man's eyes, Jesus sent him to wash in the pool of Siloam and the man "went and washed and came back able to see." There is so much that we don't see because we are unwilling or unable to look at things from a new perspective. When we are willing to move, to find a new vantage point, our blindness can be healed.

So much of Jesus' teaching involves challenges to our ways of seeing the world, challenges that are invitations to see the world and our place in it in new ways. We are far too often isolationist in our approach to the world, unwilling to see that our connections to people everywhere, and not only to people, but to all of creation. For those of us privileged to live comfortable North American lives, I think Jesus challenges us to see that our comfort has been purchased in some measure through the sufferings of underpaid workers in the two-thirds world, that our homes are heated and lighted at the expense of the earth itself.

Jesus does not lay on us a guilt trip, but challenges us to see the world in new ways and let that seeing be part of our transformation. And to let our transformation become part of the world's transformation.