Honey, Are You Incapable of Complexity?
January 27, 2008
Second Sunday of Ordinary Time
Isaiah 8:23-9:3, 1 Corinthians 1:10-17, Matthew 4:12-17
The Catholic Church reveals the presence of Christ on earth. / The Catholic Church is a flawed, imperfect human institution. Which of these two statements is true? Or what about this pair? Which of these statements is true? Human beings are fundamentally sinful creatures. / Human beings are made in the image and likeness of God. Or how about this one? Jesus Christ was fully human. / Jesus Christ was fully divine.
Of course this last pair gives it all away, because Jesus, we believe, was fully human and fully divine. He was both, at the same time, however hard that’s always been for us to understand. We tend to be either/or thinkers. We want things one way or the other. Simple. Black and white. But the mystery of the Incarnation calls us all to paradox. The mystery of the Incarnation calls us all to see that in matters of faith opposite things can be true, and usually are. Christianity is the great faith of and, not of either/or.
Last week was the week of Christian Unity, when the Church asked us to think about our relationship to other Christian denominations--our tricky, sometimes difficult relationship--and I think that paradox is the key to approaching this problem. On the one hand, we believe that Catholicism contains the fullness of truth. On the other we believe that Protestants and Evangelicals are faithful people, too, to be respected, not judged. How can both these things be true? Or what about the even more urgent question, the question of our relationship to the other great religious traditions, to Hinduism and Buddhism and Islam and all the rest? Jesus Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. That’s what we believe. Absolutely. But at the same time, the Church has consistently taught that “elements of sanctification” exist in these other traditions and that the people in these other traditions are also to be treated with open-mindedness and regard. How can that be? Jesus is the way and there are other ways, at least partially?
Yes. Exactly. It’s a paradox, it’s a tension, and we just have to live with it. As the Benedictine monk and theologian Laurence Freeman puts it, now more than ever we must “humbly acknowledge and accept” the paradox of being a Christian in the world, the “paradox of being committed and rooted in a particular faith while being also respectful and truly open to the truths of other faiths.” I love this. Its directness. Its practicality. This is just the way life is, Freeman is saying, and we just have to get used to it. We can’t solve it, we can’t fix it, and we don’t have to.
In a way the solution is simply to get deeper than all our superficial differences and to stay there, to live at the level where we all have central truths in common. This is what Paul is talking about today in the letter to the Corinthians. He’s trying to avoid factions. He’s trying to get people to stop mistaking the surface for the depth, the little things for the big things, the human for the divine, and I think that applies not only to all of us as Catholics, with all our internal differences, or to all of us as Christians, with all our denominational differences, but also to all of us as Christians living among the other great religions.
But that doesn’t mean that we have to give up our love for the particulars of our faith or stop believing in their power to make us whole. We have to make particular commitments. We can’t just float around out there. We can’t grow if we’re not first rooted. We can’t get to the top of the mountain if we don’t stay on a path, and our path is beautiful, our path is good, our path is true.
On the one hand, the general; on the other, the particular.
On the one hand, the global; on the other, the local.
For me this is a way of understanding what Pope Benedict was getting at a year ago in his controversial statement about the “defects” in other religions. For us as Catholics, the Pope said, the Church is better and fuller than any other church. But of course we believe that. Why shouldn’t we? It’s our faith, the faith we’ve chosen, and we should be proud of it. I think the Pope was simply approaching the paradox from that side of it, the side where we celebrate our own tradition. I think he was just making a slight correction in the balance. He wasn’t denying the other side. In fact, he reaffirmed it, too, quoting from Vatican II: there are “numerous elements of sanctification and of truth,” he said, outside the structures of the Church we love so deeply and believe in so strongly. It’s never either/or. It can’t be.
You know, there’s a funny moment in Tracy Kidder’s book about Paul Farmer, the doctor who works with AIDS patients in Haiti. Farmer has been talking with this wise old Haitian woman about the situation in her village. It’s a mess there, a jumble, and Farmer is getting more and more confused. Finally the woman stops, looks him in the eye, and says, “honey, are you incapable of complexity?”
Except in another way it’s really not complicated at all. It’s certainly not a matter of the intellect, of trying to figure out the puzzle. It’s the opposite. It’s about surrendering our arrogance, it’s about surrendering to God, which is why this is all so terribly important. It’s about humility. “Christ is united in his universal salvific work to every human being,” Fr. Freeman says, “but in a mysterious manner--that is, not in a way that an institution or dogma can define or control.” Jesus Christ is the Way and the Truth and the Life, absolutely, and Christ is present in the institution of the Catholic Church, absolutely, but exactly because Christ is absolute, because He is God, His way and His truth and His life extend far beyond our powers to comprehend them. All we can do, Freeman says, is “bow before the mystery that cannot be definitively understood.”
The reader board at the Nazarene Church, out on highway 99, was flashing a saying last week. Did you see it? Don’t put a question where God puts a period. Yes. But I’d say the opposite is also true: don’t put a period where God puts a question--or any other mark of punctuation. A comma. A semicolon. A dash. In fact, let’s just stop punctuating for God altogether.
Because it’s not our job, it’s not our responsibility, and that’s Good News. Very good news. We can relax. We can let go. This is God’s business, this is God’s work, and God is busy doing it, God is present, and he is present is right here and right now. Why should we care if he’s present anywhere else? Why does it matter? “The people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light” and we are that people and that light is shining before us. Who cares where else it shines? It’s here, in our midst, and because it is, all joy is possible, all peace and all hope. This is the paradox, and it saves us. The Lord of all the universe has come into this one tiny place, absolutely and completely, wherever else He also is, whatever else He has also done and is doing. What more do we need? Why are we even thinking about anything else?
Let’s put down our nets. All of them. Let’s put down our nets and follow Him.