Comprehending the Incomprehensible

ALL SAINTS SUNDAY

Isaiah 25:6-9

Psalm 24

Revelation 21:1-6a

John 11:32-44

Prayer of the Day: Almighty God, you have knit your people together in one communion in the mystical body of your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Grant us grace to follow your blessed saints in lives of faith and commitment, and to know the inexpressible joys you have prepared for those who love you, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“And [the Lord] will destroy on this mountain
   the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
   the sheet that is spread over all nations;
he will swallow up death for ever.” Isaiah 25:7-8

“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.” Revelation 21:3-4

“I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting…” Third Article of the Apostle’s Creed

I listened this week to a “panel of experts” on NPR discussing the corrosive effect of the Covid-19 pandemic on children and young people. That, at least, is where the discussion began. However, it soon evolved into a more general discussion about the struggle of people generally against despair in the face of many existential threats, not the least of which is human induced climate change. The existence of that reality, now recognized by everyone outside of the right wing lunatic fringe, and the alarming warnings from the scientific community regarding its extent are beginning to sink into the public psyche in a significant way.

I must confess that I was only listening with half an ear to all of this. After all, they weren’t telling me anything I did not already know. Moreover, while I am sure the anxiety and isolation occasioned by the pandemic and the ensuing quarantine was stressful for children, I am not sure it was any more stressful than growing up, as I did, knowing that the world could end with the push of a button and contemplating that reality while cowering under a desk at school. But then the panelists were asked how they, as parents and teachers, model hope for their children in the face of what the future may well hold for us. At that point, both my ears perked up.

The question seemed to have caught all the panelists off guard. Each one admitted that, at times, they needed to take a break from the dark global realities and focus on what makes their lives meaningful and worth living. “Acting locally,” said one panelist, “makes me feel less helpless and despondent about what is happening globally. I feel like I am not just resigned to the inevitable.” The rest expressed similar sentiments. I share this view for the most part. I may not be able single handedly to save the Cape from the perils of rising seas, beach erosion and the ecological damage caused by warming seas. But I still bring a bag along when I walk on the beach for any deflated balloons, plastic straws and bottles I encounter along the way. Better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness.

That said, it seems to me, as witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection, we have got more to say than NPR’s panel of experts. The church may not be an authority on matters of epidemiology or climatology. But when it comes to existential threats, that’s our wheelhouse. Existential threats is what we do. When the last medical intervention fails, the lines go flat and the medical experts all exit the room, we stick around. We remain because we are convinced that the story is not over. “Truly, Truly I say to you,” says Jesus, “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” John 12:24. “For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable,” says Saint Paul. I Corinthians 15:52.

What is true for individuals is just as true for planets. John of Patmos tells us in Sunday’s lesson from Revelation, “I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away…” Revelation 21:1. I want to say emphatically that I am far from despondent over the state of the world. Though there is plenty of reason for concern about the future of our planet and good reason to doubt that world leaders possess the political will to take bold actions and make sacrifices necessary to address the dangers confronting us, I know that in all events, great and small, there is a God factor involved. I have seen too many seemingly hopeless situations take startling and inexplicable positive turns, too many tragic events turned to redemptive purposes and too many irresolvable conflicts resolved to believe that the ecological ruin of our planet in the near future is inevitable. So I remain hopeful that there are enough courageous, wise and resolute souls the Spirit of God might yet employ to turn us away from the path of self destruction.

That said, our best science assures us that our planet will one day meet its demise. A resolute and effective global effort to reduce carbon emissions can postpone the existential threat hanging over the earth, but not eliminate it. Our planet, like each one of our lives, had a beginning and will have an end. But the scriptures tell us that its beginning is rooted in God’s spoken Word, its redemption is rooted in God’s Incarnate Word and its end is God’s triumphant declaration “Behold, I make all things new.” Knowing that does not make the prospect of death pleasant, but it does take the “sting” out of it.

I think we American protestants are reluctant to preach the resurrection in such bold, cosmic terms because, frankly, it embarrasses us. For the last century at least, much of our theology has been aimed at accommodating modernism. We have largely accepted uncritically the 19th Century’s equation of “empirically demonstrable facts” with the sum total of all truth and “reason” as the final arbiter of what is “real.” Numerical values and what they can measure is the sum total of what is. As for what we perceive through experiencing music, viewing graphic art, dance and poetry, that is nothing more than the product of chemical reactions in the brain triggering pleasurable or unpleasurable responses. Of course, the same goes for religion.

Finding themselves in this shrink wraped cosmos with no room for religion, theologians struggle to find a place for God. We try to push God beyond the big bang setting off the universe where we imagine God will be safe from the prying inquiries of science. We look for explanations of biblical miracles that place them firmly within the parameters of what can be explained and understood-or we reject them out of hand. Two examples come to mind, namely, the recently deceased Marcus Borg and Bishop John Shelby Spong. Both of these prominent teachers contend that much of the scriptures are premised on a primitive understanding of the universe as a “three story” structure with heaven above, hell below and the earth in the middle. Given our contemporary scientific view of the origin of the universe, the formation of our planet, the evolution of life generally and human evolution in particular, the claim that Jesus rose from death, ascended into heaven and sits at God’s right hand is unsustainable. So too are the virgin birth and the gospel miracles. These assertions are more fully (and perhaps more fairly) expressed in the writings of these two theologians. See Why Christianity Must Change or Die, Spong, John Shelby, (c. 1999; pub. by HarperOne) and  Speaking Christian, Borg, Marcus, (HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., c. 2011).

While I have profound respect for both of the above teachers, I think they are wrong. First, I believe there is more than a hint of colonial hubris in blindly assuming the Enlightenment/modernist values and assumptions developing out of northern European culture represent the peak of human understanding and that all prior perceptions of the cosmos (and, by extension, non-western views) are irrational and antiquated. For one thing, I don’t believe the ancients were at all as simplistic in their understanding of the universe as Borg and Spong imply. Long before Christopher Columbus sailed to what later became known as “the Americas,” nearly everyone understood that the world was round and that the stars occupied orbits in outer space. Moreover, fear of digging into hell never stopped the ancients from mining precious metals. The “three story universe” was never understood by learned people of ancient times, Christian or pagan, to represent literally (or even figuratively) the structure of the cosmos. While their assumptions about the nature of the cosmos often turned out to be mistaken, our ancestors’ formed those assumptions based on observations of cause and effect in the realm of nature. They were not derived from craven superstition.

I would also add that, long before western science coined the term “ecology,” the indigenous Americans well understood the symbiotic relationship between their communities, the land on which they dwelt and the animals with whom they shared that land. Had the “enlightened” settlers on our shores taken the time to learn the wisdom of these prior inhabitants, they might have figured out centuries earlier that the earth is not a lifeless blob of resources to be exploited, that the extinction of one species upsets the whole biosphere and that our own wellbeing depends on the health of our forests, grasslands, rivers and wetlands. Perhaps we would be living in a much different country. It turns out that truths learned and passed down through story, song and dance are no less “real” than those discerned in the laboratory.

That brings me to my second point. There are other ways of “knowing” than through empirical observation. Albert Einstein is credited with saying that imagination is more important than knowledge. I have not been able to verify that. But whether said by Einstein or someone else, it is true. Human imagination has the capacity, not merely to ascertain what is, but to dream of what might be. It opens us up to the realm of mystery, that which is real but beyond our understanding. The imaginative mind knows that every question answered spawns hundreds more. I doubt we will ever have a “theory of everything.” I for one am glad for that. I would not want to live in a world so small that there are no more questions to be answered, no more equations to work out, no more marvels to be discovered, no more paradoxes to puzzle over. Borg and Spong might complain that miracles, resurrection, eternal life and the communion of saints are incomprehensible to the modern mind. They would be correct. But I would respond that any religion comprehensible within the straight jacket of modernism is not a faith worth having.  

Here is a highly imaginative hymn written by John Mason Neale celebrating the communion of saints, the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come. It comes to us from The Lutheran Hymnal of 1940. Unfortunately (in my opinion) it did not make the cut for subsequent Lutheran hymnals.

Jerusalem the Golden

1 Jerusalem the golden,
with milk and honey blest,
beneath your contemplation
sink heart and voice oppressed.
I know not, O I know not,
what joys await us there;
what radiancy of glory,
what bliss beyond compare.

2 They stand, those halls of Zion,
all jubilant with song,
and bright with many an angel,
and all the martyr throng.
The Prince is ever in them,
the daylight is serene;
the pastures of the blessed
are decked in glorious sheen.

3 There is the throne of David;
and there, from care released,
the song of them that triumph,
the shout of them that feast;
and they who with their Leader
have conquered in the fight,
forever and forever
are clad in robes of white.

4 O sweet and blessed country,
the home of God’s elect!
O sweet and blessed country
that eager hearts expect!
Jesus, in mercy bring us
to that dear land of rest;
who are, with God the Father
and Spirit, ever blest.

Source: This hymn is in the public domain. John Mason Neale (1818 –1866) was an English Anglican priest, scholar and hymnwriter. He was born in London. He was educated at Sherborne School in Dorset and Trinity College in Cambridge. Neale was the principal founder of the Anglican and Eastern Orthodox Churches Union in 1864. This organization, in turn, produced the volume, Hymns of the Eastern Church, edited by John Mason Neale and published in 1865. Neale translated a wide range of holy Christian texts, including obscure medieval hymns, both Western and Eastern. His hymns have been received in Anglicanism, Orthodoxy and many protestant communions. The above hymn was inspired by a poem authored by Bernard of Morlas, a French Cluniac monk who lived in the twelfth century. You can read more about John Mason Neale and sample more of his hymns at the Hymnology Archive website.

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