Centered in Divine Mystery
There is a theme in some of Brent’s sermons lately that I get really excited about when I hear it. It might seem odd, but when I hear pastoral urgings toward ‘humility,’ all the gears in my mind and heart get going. Why? It is a radically faithful – some might say risky – proposition for a Progressive to make. To my mind, when I hear a call to religious modesty (most recently in Brent’s July 4th sermon) I hear a creative reinterpretation of Progressive legacies positioned for a new point of departure.
By Progressive, I don’t mean generalities – harping on themes of the Left to the alienation of those who favor more rightward leaning positions. Rather, I mean the historic meaning of the term – applying modern knowledge to scriptural reading – a practice that took off in a popular way about 125 years ago. Such “scientific” readings of the Bible by original Progressives a century ago revealed to them that the gospels were outlining an egalitarian “brotherhood.”
It led many to question orthodox truisms and to work for human dignity in society mirroring the commonwealth of the early church. It led to the formation of “altruism clubs” in churches, to social experiments like settlement houses, to economic advocacy groups and urban missions; it led to unprecedented ecumenical alliances and the adoption of the “Social Creed” by mainline churches as the first act of the National Council of Churches formed in 1908. The first order of business for Progressives, in other words, was to join together to rally for economic justice. And they did so powerfully! They believed they were going to revolutionize America and create a perfect society.
I often hear the re-narration of this historic Protestant undertaking in Brent’s sermons – sermons resonating deeply with the problem of reckoning Christianity with modern life so as to more truly grasp the Christian ethic and make life in America better. Sermons that urge unity for the sake of compassionate justice.
Lamentably, we still face many of the same crises that the first Progressives wrestled with: poverty and unrest stemming from a wealth gap created by modern industry and complicated by political corruption. We are still mired in struggle with religious fundamentalism. We have not yet achieved racial and gender equality. We are as susceptible to indulging nationalistic feeling abetting fever of war and justifying use of force as we ever have been.
In fact, our challenges may even be greater. Though it is not such an uphill battle now as it might have been a century ago to convince anyone to accept the shake-up of modern knowledge applied to sacred orthodoxies, neither are mainliners poised to assume the kind of influence we once had. We are now in a post-civil rights, postmodern, globalized landscape. We cannot have the naïve confidence of our Progressive forebears that we have found the way to enact the kingdom of God and arrive at perfect democracy. Perhaps we are further from this kind of confidence than ever.
But, it’s Brent’s gentle urge toward living in God’s mystery that intrigues me at this moment. Humble acknowledgement of God’s grander ways means one group cannot assume power over another. Instead of summoning a God of power to back up our own positions, Brent reminds us that truth is bigger than our religion, bigger than what we come to rely on as orthodox, bigger than Christianity, itself.
Humility and awe are things that earlier Progressives did not necessarily have. They had social theories, methods, programs, and systems. They had faith in the alchemy of reason put to sacred texts that gave them unfettered confidence that they would figure out how to enact the perfectly egalitarian commonwealth they rediscovered in the gospels. The problem was that they had such faith that they – enthusiastic and well-intentioned as they were – actually replicated modes of church and society that favored white Protestant dominance – a dominance endemic with racial and gender inequity, a dominance that perpetuated the logics underlying the economic injustice they worked against.
So, after a century humbling of Progressive pretensions, we are in an interesting position. Dominance is literally out of reach. Mainliners cannot exert a controlling agenda. Yet, what I take from Brent’s sermons putting forward Progressive themes in a new key – unity through humility – suggests perhaps a better way. Respect for God’s mystery puts us always in a position of restraint. Such an attitude gives us the possibility of embodying the kind of love we strive for – a love that comes only when we lay down power and knowledge (and all the programmatic systematizing we are wont to do). Can we say that humility is the position from which we are truly able to love God and our neighbor with all our heart, mind, and strength? And from which we make the democratic experiment work? What a risky proposition!
I want to try it out to see what happens. It leads me further down two paths.
First, with appreciation for the gifts of our Progressive ancestors, it makes me want to center myself more within the divine mystery that is the source of love, respect and compassion. Humility about knowledge allows me to continue to allow my view of God to evolve and to listen and learn from others. It allows me to stay open, to be open to the wisdom of those outside my own faith tradition, to accept my own imperfections with flexibility and grace. It enables me to elevate the knowing ways of spirit, body or feeling, which complement intellectual knowledge. It helps me to look through eyes of love as much or more than through eyes of exacting analysis. (“Yours are the eyes through which to look out Christ’s compassion to the world,” Theresa of Avila once said.) This opens up much greater possibility for meaningful connection with others – is that not the basis of a peaceful society?
Second, the kind of humility of which Brent speaks makes me also want to reinvest in collective bodies that bring peace and make democracy work. The confession that God exceeds my capacity to know means that I must never assume that my point of view is more right than others. In fact, I need help. I need relationships that help me to grow. Humility enables us to see that we need each other. We cannot do it alone.
Our churches (mosques, synagogues…), our cities, our nation are bodies rooted in historic ideals tested by experience. It is through such bodies, refereed by history and collectively reformed through many voices over long period of time – though never perfect – that we can truly work toward and sustain the kinds of communities we desire in which many voices are heard and respected. It may sound ironic, given my criticism of systems as enactments of dominance that inherently repress some voices, but we can agree that neither does unfettered individualism serve the cause of a just peace. Rather, because we need each other, I believe we must reinvest in collective bodies.
Rooting the American ideal of religious tolerance and the biblical ideal of forbearance in a humility that comes from a view of God as all-reconciling just might be the key to making it all work. It is a risk: to trust divine mystery with humility is to take a position of weakness. (And just look at the stakes of power!) Can it be that laying down the sword (even the pen or the program) for more humble acts can fulfill God’s vision and give flesh to the American experiment? That in taking a position of openness to others I am helping to protect life and liberty? That in admitting my own imperfections I am helping to form a more perfect union? That, as the Taoist says, in putting others before myself, I find myself in the foremost place and come very near to God?
I would like to give it a try – relying on the wisdom of history and community to show the next small step.
Quieting myself to hear my neighbor.
Allowing that wonder can serve wisdom more profoundly than assertion.
Admitting my limits to make room for others’ strengths.
Taking my cue from God and neighbor and history to know where I fit in this conversation and placing my trust in the mutuality that makes justice possible.
Jennifer Gattis has been a NorthPark Presbyterian member for 10 years and is an ordained elder. She holds a Ph.D. in American Studies from the College of William and Mary and an M.A. in Religion from Yale University.