Beyond Contradiction – May 25, 2020
As America began to reopen (too early for safety, I suspect) the complaining began. These masks are too hot. This mask is inconvenient, it is in my way! This is just a hoax, these masks anyway! All things in America these days always end with the politics of the thing, whatever it is. Half reject “said thing” because it must be a conspiracy of “the other”!
For many years I have been fascinated with the notion of the leadership of groups in times of high anxiety. Having been a parish priest for thirty-six years, how could I not. These days everyone complains. While that is wearying it is amateur in the extreme when compared to the master complainers of the universe, namely, the Children of Israel in the Wilderness.
The Scripture records fourteen times they murmured. I love the word. Why? Murmuring is speaking loud enough to be clearly understood and not so loud that the speaker is forced to take responsibility for the remark. Anyone who has ever reared children knows exactly what I mean. Keep in mind that every time they complained bitterly it was always against a policy designed to bring them safely through the Wilderness into the Land of Promise.
Fast forward. Masks and social distancing are designed to KEEP PEOPLE FROM CATCHING COVID19. It is the best way to slow this virus until a medical remedy can be found, prepared, and ministered to the entire human race. This is only a mild inconvenience compared to the Black Death of the Fourteenth Century, I’m just saying.
Let us take a long slow breath and consider two responses. One to take steps to calm ourselves down and the second to grow ourselves up. Once we do this, then do it again and again. It will help one’s blood pressure and generally improve the quality of life in this reopening society for everyone around us.
John W. Sewell
May 25, 2020
November 30, 2019
John W. Sewell
1. Like Christopher Columbus, what we find may be more important than what we were looking for.
2. Whatever is worth doing is worth doing poorly.
3. Dealing with matters of power and faith is like driving a car on ice. Doing what comes naturally, is almost always not the thing to do.
4. Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly
5. Salvation is a gift requiring a response.
6. The Christian life is like driving a car on ice. The automatic non-thinking reaction is not the thing to do.
7. Dissecting a frog is instructive but afterward it will not hop!
8. In matters of faith and nutrition, you are what you eat.
9. Ministry is like being pecked to death by a flock of small ducks
10. Every expression of Christianity has an inner inarticulate essence and a cultural manifestation. – Rev Stephen Parsons
11. Don’t collect so much clutter that you will be relieved to see your house catch fire. – Wendell Berry
12. If you want a huge funeral die young and tragically. If you live to extreme old age and it rains there will be nobody there.
In hope, in spite of the facts.
- Is extremism concerned with the supremacy of one’s own group, or is it defined by hatred of the “other”?
- Do extremists emerge on the scene suddenly, or do they evolve from mainstream movements?
- Are they found only on the margins of society?
- Is violence a necessary component of extremism?
- How do extremists decide on their beliefs?
- Are they rational?
- How can we define extremism objectively when so many possible variations exist?
Berger, J. M. Extremism (MIT Press Essential Knowledge series). The MIT Press. Kindle Edition.
NOTE: In 2003 I gave a talk at Saint Johns Memphis, Tennessee about the DaVinci Code the page turner by Dan Brown. The piece below explains the adventure. I came across this on the internet recently and thought it might be worth sharing.
I wrote this in 2006
Below is an article I wrote for ExploreFaith.org. It remains topical two and a half years later. Three years ago this November a quote from an interview I gave about the Da Vinci Code published in the Commercial Appeal was subsequently quoted by Dan Brown on his website, DanBrown.com. This citation opened a “minor career” on matters Da Vinci. Calls have come from La Monde Magazine, Paris, France, The Guardian, Sidney, Australia and even talk radio in Sacramento, California. Now the movie is about to be released and I have agreed to respond to questions from the Commercial Appeal readers. All this says a great deal less about my “authority” than about the ubiquitous nature of the Internet. Below you will find an article I wrote for the web page, Exploring Faith. It continues to reflect my sense of the Da Vinci Code phenomena.
In November (2003) I led three conversations about issues raised in The Da Vinci Code. Months earlier, while browsing in a bookstore, the cover of the novel caught my eye, and because I have a long fascination with Leonardo (he is never called Da Vinci), I bought the book to read as a diversion. I found nothing new there, but it was a good page-turner.
Then something interesting happened. People old and young, male and female, began to ask me could it be true, as the Code contends, that Jesus and Mary of Magdala were married and perhaps even had a child. This and other questions continued through the summer with such frequency that I realized that this book provided a teachable moment.
I prepared to have a conversation about the book with interested members of the congregation I serve. A press release was sent to the local newspaper and I was asked for an interview. The resulting lead article once again indicated a high level of interest, but the turnout the night of our first gathering was completely unexpected: Six hundred people packed the pews.
What is it about Dan Brown’s novel that enticed hundreds of people into church for a conversation? When questioned by a reporter about why I thought so many people were reading this book, I replied, “It is filled with delicious Christian heresies.” Did Jesus marry Mary from Magdala and have genetic descendants? However intriguing the notion there seems to be no compelling evidence that Jesus married at all.
The idea has prompted people to ask, “What am I to believe and why?” That is a very valid and enduring question. Toward the end of that first meeting a woman stood up and said, “We are here tonight because we are searching.” One of the challenges for the searcher is the interpretation of discovery. What does a new idea or experience I have encountered mean? Is it true? If it is true how is it true? If it is true how does it apply to my life?
In an age of anxiety it is tempting to reach for certainty. If we can be certain then we can be safe. If we are safe then we are in control. However, certainty is illusionary. There is no certainty. In fact certainty is contradictory to faith. As Allen Jones, Dean of Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, puts it, “The opposite of faith is not doubt. The opposite of faith is certainty.”
For me at least, notions that promise certainty are suspect. For Christians faith is the posture in the face of mystery. What God has revealed in Christ Jesus is a mystery. How could the birth of one man in one moment of history make a difference for all people at all times within history? Many have found this preposterous. And yet that is the core belief of classical Christianity.
What is there to find that is unique about the classical Christian understanding of Jesus? Over centuries Christians came to believe that Jesus is fully human and fully god. I believe that he is. That is an act of faith for me but increasingly I suspect that it is true because it is not the easy way out.
Humanity likes the quick fix, the black or white option—clear cut and simple. Heresy, from the word, “to choose,” is the tendency to choose a part of a notion and carry it to a logical conclusion, thereby ignoring the complexity and richness of the fuller reality.
As Northrop Frye writes in his book Anatomy of Criticism, “… the full metaphorical statement ‘Christ is God and Man’ is orthodox, and the Arian (the belief that Jesus was not god but the highest creation of God) and Docetic (Jesus only appeared to be god but was in fact only a virtual god) statements in terms of simile or likeness (are) condemned as heretical.” The heresy is to not be willing to live with the tension of the paradox, but rather to want reality easily understandable.
The Da Vinci Code introduces many people to the fact that there were many exotic flowers in the early garden of Christianity. There are many reasons that they didn’t become the dominant form of Christianity. In some cases they couldn’t compete in the marketplace of ideas and in others they were eradicated by the political power of the state allied with the church. The church has not always covered itself in glory by mercy and justice.
All that notwithstanding I think the principle reason that classical Christianity endures to the present is the fact that the easy way was not the way chosen. The fact that the church chose the way of paradox and ambiguity as the most authentic way to live in the mystery of God revealed in Christ is the most telling reason for the enduring power of its life and message. Even in the church there is a desire for certainty. That is the human condition. The courage to face paradox is the most authentic expression of the Christian life. I believe that this is the life for which people unconsciously search. That is why I suspect that six hundred people showed up on a Wednesday night to talk about a novel.
Now the movie opens and questions abound. I don’t think that this novel threatens anything. It’s existence provides a teachable moment and as Christians we should be in words of the Apostle Peter be prepared to give an accounting for the hope that is in us (I Peter 3:15). We must be about the business of our Lord and the culture is prepared to talk. That’s a good thing.
In hope, in spite of the facts.
“A teacher is one who attempts to re-create the subject in the student’s mind, and his strategy in doing this is first of all to get the student to recognize what he already potentially knows, which includes breaking up the powers of repression in his mind that keep him from knowing what he knows.” — The Great Code – Northrop Frye
If a man calls you an ass, the best way is to take no notice of it; but if you are called so by two or more persons take the bit into your own mouth.
–Gen. Rabba 45.
When I rise up
Let me rise up with joy
like a bird
When I fall
Let me fall
Like a leaf
This short prayer, one of the Sayings and Prayers of the Mad Farmer, by Wendell Berry is a favorite of mine. I have quoted it at many funerals in the past thirty-eight years of my priesthood. It re-framed walking through the dead and dying leaves of fall.
Among all my patients in the second half of life – that is to say over thirty-five – there has not been one whose problem in the last resort that was that of finding a religious outlook on life. Carl Jung – Psychotherapist of the Clergy (1923)