Wisdom for the World II

Wisdom for the World II

by Robert Hamerton-Kelly

January 7, 2001

Scripture: Acts 8:14-17, Luke 3: 15-17, 21-22

“…He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire”

Luke 3:16

We continue our meditation on the challenge of Epiphany, to mediate Christ to the world. Last Sunday we read the story of the three foreign kings and scholars who came from far away to worship Jesus. They believed that his birth was a revelation of divine wisdom to the world, and that it was worth going a very long way to find it. In this spirit we took up the subject of the Christian Missions to far away places, and I defended the missions, not because I believe their record is without blemish or ambiguity, but because they are unjustly condemned by important elements of our current culture. I pointed out evidence of their contributions, and one of these instances concerned the end of witch hunting in a Papua-New Guinea village in the last decade. Strikingly, the New York Times for Tuesday of last week (01/02/01) carried a story of renewed witch hunting in Indonesia, a corroboration of my sermon and a sign that the spiritual corruption the missions opposed is not past, and still demands the spiritual energy they once showed, to control it.

The spiritual challenges of human life remain constant and therefore the demand on our spiritual resources is constant. If our faith cannot meet those demands and challenges it is not worth much, and for that reason I celebrated the history of the London Missionary Society, which from 1795 to 1997 met those challenges with significant success. It no longer exists, but the missionary activity of our church goes on. I refer you to the weekly inserts in our orders of service. They come from the Board of World Ministries and give us a week-by-week account of how we are meeting the challenge, and an opportunity to support the work in prayer and other ways. Please take them home and use them in your times of prayer.

Our primary place of mission is not far away but right here, in the Bay area, one of the most significant places in the world for the challenge to the life of the spirit. How shall we mediate Christ to our time and place? Let me suggest that one way is to foster a renewed and vital spirituality. Last September Rabbi Michael Lerner gave a speech to the Commonwealth club on his new book entitled Spirit Matters. He is the founding editor of Tikkun magazine and the originator of the phrase “politics of meaning” that the Clintons favored at the beginning of their administration. Rabbi Lerner gives a good analysis of the challenge and some good recommendations about how to meet it. The essence of the challenge is that we have ceased to view the universe as an object of awe and wonder and sought to dominate and control it. We have adopted this same attitude in personal relations, seeking always to dominate and control rather than to let others be. The polite word for this urge to dominate and control is competition, and the fundamental science is economics. I remember the flash of insight I saw when I learned that the term “lusts” in traditional Christian moral theology, – as in the lust to dominate, to fornicate, and to pile up wealth (lust as in libido), which are the three pillars of original sin, – came in the Enlightenment to be called “interests.” No longer lusts, but interests. In19th century England they metamorphosed again into “utilities” and that is what they are called today, in the utilitarian calculus of economics and its accompanying ethic of consequences rather than principles. (The first University Professor of Ethics appointed at Stanford in the late eighties was an economist!).

Lerner says that competition governs our relations with others, turning the other into a utility or interest rather than a center of awe and wonder. Is it any wonder that so many of us feel unacknowledged and alone, even in the midst of the crowd, even in the hyperactivity of meetings and phone calls? No one in that world connects with us as centers of personal wonder; and sadly this neglect carries over into our so-called intimate relations, and spouses are strangers to each other, until they wake up and realize that they do not really like each other and should go their separate ways. To quote Lerner: “Friendships seem less real because they used to be based on solidarity. You could count on other people to be there for you. Increasingly the market consciousness seeps into people’s minds and shapes their behavior, people are looking at friends primarily in terms of a rational calculation: I give to you in rational expectation that you give back in equal amount to me…More and more in loving relationships and families we see the market ethos infecting people to such an extent that they begin to look at other human beings in market terms. And people are continually putting themselves out and trying to represent that they are the best possible product. Ultimately being the best possible product comes down to saying, ’I can satisfy more of your needs than anybody else.’” The insecurity and constant striving that this situation breeds is obvious and deadly.

To correct this, Lerner says that we should agree on a new bottom line of love and caring. His “emancipatory spirituality” says that institutions should be judged on their efficiency in producing love and caring among people, and making people ethically sensitive and spiritually alive. This is not a new analysis, but that does not mean that it is not true. We in Silicon Valley may have an acute case of the old disease of treating people as means to an end rather than ends in themselves, and for us Rabbi Lerner’s analysis is timely. What steps shall we take to emancipate ourselves from this market mentality and contribute to a change in our society towards love and caring?

Lerner advocates, prayer, community and Sabbath. I endorse all three. Prayer is a way of being in touch with the awesome and wonderful creator God, community is an opportunity to see others not a tools for our purposes but as gifts of wonder and awe to our souls, and Sabbath is a deliberate intention to enjoy those whom God has given us in the wonderful world where he has placed us. I recommend that we consider keeping Sabbath with special seriousness. Sabbath is one of the Jews’ great gifts to the world. We take it for granted, and mostly ignore it, but in the Roman world people worked all the time, and the Jews were considered lazy because they took one whole day in seven off from labor. God has given us this wonderful world, God has given us one another; God wants us to take one day in seven to do nothing else that to enjoy these gifts, to revel in the creation and to adore the beauty of God’s own image in those whom we love. We may add to Lerner’s list, service and self-giving, caring for the poor and the stranger and the afflicted. This too enhances our spirit.

So there is little difference on the surface between what the Rabbi sees and what I see, even though we belong to different religions. I daresay all the great religions would endorse this indictment of the instrumentality of human relations in the service of materialism, and all would recommend prayer, community and good deeds. What then makes our Christian approach unique? There is little difference on the surface but at the deeper level the difference is clear. The rampant self-interest of a society where the competitiveness of the market governs all relations, is for us Christians the latest manifestation of the three lusts, – domination, fornication and greed- that are the traditional components of original sin.

It is not sufficient simply to decide to transform ourselves; when I decide to do that I discover that I cannot break free, – in Lerner’s terms, I cannot emancipate myself. Indeed, the more I try the more self-absorbed I become, the more I struggle to free myself the more I am enmeshed in the net of competitiveness. This claim can be tested; down the centuries we Christians have tested it and found it true. The more you struggle to free yourself the more enmeshed you become. We need a savior.

Now I know I risk sounding like the person who advertised a talk, “On Humility and how I achieved it,” but I must speak out of my own experience. For me, the birth, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus is a series of events that achieved a new start for the human race, beyond the three lusts, in all their forms. I have found in Jesus a savior; and not only I but also countless men and women down the ages. If you want to change from a competitive, materialistic person, faith in Jesus Christ is an effective way to promote that change. When we call upon him the Holy Spirit begins the work of transformation in us, and that Holy Spirit is the giver of true spirituality. I cannot prove this but I can attest that I have experienced it to be true and can confidently recommend it to you.

And let me repeat what I have often said: You don’t have to believe the whole Christian creed before you call on Jesus; because you can’t believe everything does not mean that you don’t believe something, and in that respect we are all still on the way to becoming Christians. I have a friend in Budapest whom I counsel by phone from time to time. She is the young widow of a post-doctoral fellow whom I brought to Stanford right after the Cold War. He was killed recently in a traffic accident and she was left with a five-year-old daughter. She asked me for advice on how to handle her daughter’s ongoing emotional insecurity and I said that I had no wisdom to add to what the psychologists were telling her, but that I would pray for Aliz and advised her to pray too. She said she did not know how; her Communist upbringing had left her absolutely ignorant of prayer. So I said, ‘Just start even if you don’t yet believe in God, or know what prayer is. Just let your deepest needs and desires come to word and cry out for help, and you will learn to pray.” And then I taught her the Lord’s Prayer.

There is no doubt that we all need a rebirth of spirituality. Lerner restates for our time and place what is an ancient and ongoing part of the Christian religion, namely, that we are fallen into sin and need to be rescued and renewed. I know that Christ can rescue and renew us, because I know that he sends the Holy Spirit, who in many cases is content to work unrecognized and unnamed. In one sense the Spirit is at work in all of us all the time, mostly unrecognized and unnamed, making us discontented in our sinfulness and causing us to long for wholeness. What a power and a joy it is to know the name of that Spirit, the name by which to call upon him, the name of Jesus! So why not Just do it?