Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Learning from the Magi

The scriptures of the Judeo-Christian tradition invite us into the human struggle for truth. They are not perfect from any angle and some texts should trouble us. The scriptures reflect the faith journeys and struggles of faith communities, therefore, we should expect to find in our scriptures contradictions, paradoxes, conflicts, and inconsistencies. When we struggle with the sacred text, we struggle with God, and that provides us with an opportunity to grow up, to evolve in spiritual consciousness.

Creeds and doctrinal statements are basically distractions that invite people to avoid the struggle and, as a result, avoid real growth and transformation. My assessment of such documents is obviously biased, springing from the impact they have had on people I know. Creeds and propositional statements of doctrine offer single sentence answers that end the questioning and hence, the thinking, searching, and struggling with questions of faith.

In the Gospel story of Matthew 2:1–12, the chief priests and teachers of the law offer King Herod a quick answer. They quote the creed; they quote scripture. But they do not know nor do they even care to know the truth.

By way of contrast, the magi are truth seekers. They are not of the Jewish tradition, nor are they interested in converting to Judaism, but they are drawn to a strange land among a strange people by a star. The star is a symbol for what is true and real. They are willing to pursue the truth wherever the truth is to be found and they are ready to embrace the truth whatever the truth might be.

It is important to note where the star did not lead them. It did not leave them to the Temple. The Temple had become a place of exclusion. There were boundaries clearly marked and strictly enforced that signaled levels of holiness and worthiness. Women and Gentiles were relegated to the outer boundaries, while the sick and impure were completely excluded from the Temple precincts. Temple religion was commonly marked by self-righteous pride and one-upmanship.

The star led the magi to a place of poverty and humility, where they were warmly welcomed and their gifts gratefully received.

The chief priests and teachers of the law are leaders who wield religious power with more important things to do than go wandering off on a spiritual quest for truth. They are the guardians of the status quo, boundary keepers who have a lot of ego to protect. They quote scripture and offer a quick answer to maintain the power structure and the pecking order.

The magi have nothing to protect. They are willing to leave all behind, journey to an unknown place, and give away precious treasures all in the interest of knowing the truth.

The pursuit of truth leads us into a struggle with our sacred scriptures. In many ways the Bible mirrors our own spiritual struggles, our advances and setbacks.

The Jewish leaders danced to the tune of the dominant power exhibited by King Herod and did not have the spiritual acumen to discern that they were moving backward rather than forward. This is when religion turns destructive and deadly.

The choice before us is whether we will settle for easy, quick answers that support the status quo and draw narrow lines defining who is in or out, or whether we will follow the star into previously unknown lands that welcome all humble seekers of truth.

If we approach our scriptures like the magi, open and receptive to the Divine Spirit, then we can see in the Bible a general progression, an evolution of spiritual consciousness born of struggle.

It is a movement from violence to nonviolence, from manipulative, coercive power to relational, persuasive power, from the divine right of kings to servant leadership, from exclusion to inclusion, from patriarchy to egalitarianism, from preoccupation with right doctrine and cultic ritual to the pursuit of inner humility and integrity, from retribution and pay backs to forgiveness, reconciliation, and redemptive justice, from laws of purity enforced by religious power to the law of true liberty, the law of love written on minds and hearts of compassion.

It is a slow process. I like the parable of the mustard seed and the growth parables in the Gospels because they give me hope—hope for myself when I seem to keep making the same mistakes and hope for the world when we seem to be moving in the wrong direction.  

For Christians for whom the Judeo-Christian scriptures are central to their faith, the revelation of the character of God reaches its peak and pinnacle in the revelation that comes through Christ. It takes us a long time to get there. But in Jesus we meet a completely nonviolent, compassionate God. Of course, even after we arrive at Jesus, we still have the problem of living with that revelation. So there are regressions still, like the kind we see in the book of Revelation where the nonviolent Jesus of Paul’s letters and the Gospels is made into a violent, blood shedding heavenly warrior.  

As we struggle with our sacred scriptures, the magi remind us that transformative truth can be found. It’s not likely to be found in short answers, Bible quotes, and creedal definitions. It requires a journey that leads us into new places as we leave behind familiar surroundings to embark upon a humble, sincere quest for what is—for what is real, true, and life changing and for the God who is more than we can ever think or imagine.   

5 comments:

  1. Are we being a little too harsh on creeds?

    After all, "credo" is Latin for "I believe." It represents a short, confessional statement on the meaning of one's faith. Faith is man's response to God, who reveals himself and gives himself to man, at the same time bringing man a superabundant light as he searches for the ultimate meaning in his life.

    What moves us to believe is not the fact that revealed truths appear as true and intelligible in the light of our natural reason; we believe "because the authority of God himself who reveals them, who can neither deceive nor be deceived."

    A creed is a formal statement of faith, not a formula of faith. A believer's act of faith need not terminate in its propositions, but in the realities which they express. All the same, it is useful to approach these realities with the help of formulations of the faith which permit us to express the faith and to hand it on, celebrate it in community, to assimilate and live on it more and more.

    If there is one thing modern minds have derided and held up as a dreadful example of barren dogma (creeds) and senseless sectarian strife, it is what you alluded to in your Dec. 27 post, the orthodox insistence of the Co-eternity of the Son. At the same time, if there is one thing that the same critics always offer as an example of pure and simple Christianity, undiluted by theological disputes, it is the simple sentence, "God is love."

    Yet the two dogmas are almost identical and one is nonsense without the other. For if there were a being without beginning, existing before all things, could he be loving without having anything to love? If he is alone in eternity, what is the meaning of saying, "He is love?"

    The only justification for such a mystery is the mystical conception that in his own nature there was something alike to self-expression; something which begats and beholds what is begotten: it is the Mystery of the Trinity, the innermost life of God, his profoundest secret.

    Contemplating this, we find that the concept of infinite love comes to life for us. God lives a life of infinite love. But what does he love? What is a worthy object for a love that is infinite? Not humans, nor angels. If God had only these things to love, then his love never has an object of the same measure, for humans and angels cannot fully conceive infinite love, nor fully return it.

    The only object of infinite love is an infinite being, God himself, in three distinct persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the love which proceeds from both the Father and Son, a love that is both infinitely given and received. The revelation of the Blessed Trinity was in one sense an even more certain proof than the Cross that God loves humankind and wants us to share in his infinite love, for he didn't have to reveal this secret in order to redeem us.

    A creed then, defines what only needs to be defined to prevent error, and keeping the limitless Mystery of God from any strictures imposed by finite minds.

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  2. To hard on creeds? I don't think so. I have witnessed the damage they have done. They too easily become litmus tests for heresy. And once a creed becomes established, the "errors" within the creed become almost impossible to correct (All creeds have errors).

    The reasoning you offer for the co-eternity of the Son does't paint God in a very appealing tones. You have construed a God who loves himself--the only "worthy object for a love that is infinite." Humans and angels, you say, are not worthy of that love. I hope God is not so egotistical.


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  3. I'm afraid your carnal interpretation of the infinite love which exists between the Persons of the Trinity completely misses the point. Only a human can become egotistical, for to say that God created the universe and all of its creatures because he "needed" something to love is to assume that there is something deficient in God's nature, that he is not ontologically a completely self-existent being, which would make him less than who he really is.

    That, sir, is idolatry, believing in something you want God to be, rather than believing in the Mystery of God. Remember, a mystery is not something which we can know nothing about; it is something which we can know a little about, but not everything. What we do know is that God has revealed himself as a Trinity of persons in one nature (i.e. "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name [note the singular] of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit").

    The truth is exactly opposite of what you have construed. God created the universe (which neither added to, nor subtracted, from his glory) for the purpose of sharing his love and complete joy with his creation, so that his creatures may become Sons of God by adoption in his one and only Son by nature.

    Merely having a open mind is nothing of itself. The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid, otherwise a psychology of relativism about truth and reality will result. As I said, a creed is a profession of faith, a premise on which to build. Isn't it an act of faith to believe in your five senses, to assume that your thoughts have any relation at all to reality?

    When a man drops one doctrine after another in a refined skepticism, when he declines to tie himself to a system, when he says that he has outgrown definitions, when he says that he disbelieves in finality, when, in his own imagination, he sits as God, holding no form of creed but contemplating all, then he is by that very process sinking slowly backwards into the vagueness of the vagrant animals and the unconsciousness of the grass. Trees have no dogmas. Turnips are singularly broad-minded.

    Pax vobis.

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  4. Well, anonymous, I could be wrong; I suspect I am about a lot of things. Apparently, you cannot. You seem to be in full possession of the truth about God which qualifies you to diagnose all "carnal" interpretations. At one time, I thought that way. I'm glad that is in my past. We could sit down and have a dialogue if your knowledge of the truth didn't take up all the room. There's no place to sit.

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  5. A common mistake made by modernists is to assume that all truth is subjective, that is, as one sees it himself, i.e. "What's truth for you may be good for you, but not me". Are you debating on this premise? I assure you, I am not.

    The only person who can be in full possession of the truth is God, because it resides within his nature. Truth is completely objective because truth exists outside and independently of the human mind. When I make a statement about God's nature, or his person, I am not conveying my private interpretation of Scripture or theology. As I explained to you in my post to your Dec. 27 reflection, I am summarizing much of what early Church Fathers have expounded on obscure points of Scripture. The Church, as Paul says, "is the pillar and foundation of truth" (1 Tim 3:15).

    You seem to have made a common mistake "Bible only" Fundamentalists make. They criticize Catholics for teaching such doctrines as, for example, the Apostolic succession of bishops or that the Eucharist is a sacrifice, and their criticism rests on the contention that these doctrines are not plainly and unambiguously contained in Scripture. I concede that these doctrines are not to be found in the letter of Scripture, nor on its surface. But this is just as true of other doctines they as orthodox Protestants believe quite firmly, such doctrines as say, the Godhead of the Holy Spirit or that Holy Scripture contains all that is sufficient for salvation. Neither of these doctrines are contained on the surface in Scripture.

    It seems to me that those who believe the Bible is the sole authority for belief ought in consistency to believe less than they do (as you seem to), or more than they do. If one confines himself to what is contained in Scripture then the content of one's belief will be thin and even incoherent, and one will never have a rationale for giving the Bible this supreme position.

    What they do, inconsistently, believe is a warrant for them going further and adopting as their criterion the tradition of the first few centuries and using this tradition, embodied in the formularies of the Church, as that in the light of which Scripture is to be read and understood. One finds that one must either move upward into Catholicism or downwards into unbelief. There is no midway point of rest.

    Belief is not confined to believers any more than philosophy is confined to philosophers. Every has a philosophy because everyone has something they believe in. But as Cicero famously said, you have no choice between having a philosophy and not having one, only between having a good philosophy and having a bad one.

    Same goes for knowing the truth about God. I'll concede that knowing God is not as important as loving him, for it is safe to assume that the angels who rebelled against God know him far better than we do. But it would be a strange God indeed who could be loved better by being known less. Love of God is not the same thing as knowledge of God, but someone who loves God knowing a little about him should love him more the greater true knowledge of God becomes.

    I will earnestly attempt to continue a dialogue with you, if you want one, but I must admit, the dialogue which seems most in need of development is the one between you and God. Ask him some of your toughest questions; he's big enough to handle them.

    As for finding a place to sit down, I do not know about the size of Immanuel Baptist in Frankfort, but there's plenty of room within the walls of the Catholic Church. It looks bigger from the inside than it does from the outside. And they are the walls of a playground!

    Pax vobis

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