The Rev. Canon Michael Wyatt, Ph.D.
This Sunday falls between the birth and the naming of Jesus; like all Jewish boys, he would be named at his circumcision, seven days after this birth. Every family knows these times. The anticipated baby is finally here, and the exhausted reactions are a mixture of joy, relief, jealousy, disappointment, gratitude, concern, and awe. Those involved are suspended between an event and a name, between experience and meaning. All one can do is live forward, trembling that even what we are about to call this new presence may shape the days to come prematurely.
This year particularly this sense of being in a time in which something has begun that we are incapable of interpreting might set off a shuddering resonance within us. Our nation and our culture this Christmas are also in a period between birth and naming–though it is more like a death–because we are in a fight we may not know how to win and do not know how to name. What we have given birth to we do not know and what we might call it takes our breath away. Our righteous indignation is not enough, nor our humanitarian commitment, nor the paradox of our power and our terror, nor our just cause–none is enough to grasp and name where we find ourselves.
It is simply too soon for us to know what to call what we have done in response to the devilish attacks of last September. We responded with courage and self-sacrifice on September 11th and in the days that followed. We entered a struggle to eradicate one of the sources of recurring acts of terrorism. We will mourn and honor those we lost for a long time. Our appearance is that of a nation at war. However, that is too simple a conclusion. It leaves us ignorant of the sources of this conflict, blinds us to the potential abuses in our response, and may even allow us to push with self-satisfaction towards an outcome in which we could crown ourselves as victors and urge a return to normalcy with self-blinding impatience.
Also, naming is never up to one voice alone. The child his parents called Jesus came to be called Christ by his followers. He gave one of his more hardheaded disciples the nickname “Rock”–a good name for a man who tried to walk on water and sank. Another, who called himself the last and least of Christ’s apostles, gave up his Jewish name “Saul” in favor of its Hellenistic equivalent when his missionary work took him to the Gentiles. Now we know them as Peter and Paul.
Accurate naming requires a humility that acknowledges that no single partner in a conversation can set all the terms. As we talk together, we find what terms best identify what we are talking about. In that sense, we almost discover what something is named, as we agree in practice on what to call it.
For that reason also, this complex conflict that we are in cannot yet be named, because we are still struggling to hear all the voices that are raised. Whether or not this is a war on terrorism will be known over time, as those involved around the world come to find out what it is for them. However, it is clear, reading the prayers of the attackers, listening to the gloating pieties of Osama Bin Laden, receiving accounts of the ambivalence in the madrasas, the Islamic schools, in Pakistan and Afghanistan, that they find religious significance in this conflict. It is equally clear that our country, rooted in modernity, has little wish to accept those terms. We say we are not at war with Islam, but we will not understand where we are, and we will stumble over this confusion repeatedly, if we fail to listen to what others are calling this pervasive systemic collision of cultures. With the collapse of modernity, religious authority has surged into the gap–the very voice our neoliberal society preferred to have banned from the conversation.
Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Professor of Islamic Studies at George Washington University, says succinctly, almost bluntly, “there is no division between the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Caesar in the Islamic perspective. Rather, all belongs to God and must therefore be regulated by Divine Law…” This is the marriage Western Europe took to divorce court in the Enlightenment. Islam sees in a society ordered by Islamic law the full expression of God’s will. Mohammad was a political as well as a religious leader–a striking contrast with Christ. Instead of the Christian account of twelve apostles that disappear into tradition, itinerant founders of small cell groups, the story of Islam is of the succession of caliphs, clearly identified religious leaders, who also served in military and political roles and who were each seen as the head of a growing empire. Living in Dar al-Islam, the Abode of Islam, is to be the first sipping of the honey-milk of Paradise.
God’s will for Muslim society, the principal site of God’s self-manifestation for Islam, is the radical equality of the faithful, their commitment to each other, and the care of all its members by the community, providing for the most needy by legalized alms-giving. What we call political fundamentalism can also be understood as the struggle to bring this holy vision to birth in time. Whatever its violent and repugnant manifestations, nestled in it is the legitimate call that God’s injunctions be followed faithfully and demonstrably and the legitimate acknowledgment that the Creator of all, to whom we are accountable, cares about all. We tend to judge ourselves by our ideals and others by their failings, of course.
When Islam looks at our society and sees materialism, indifference to each other, viciousness, and violence, and when Islam looks at its own countries and sees the callous stretch of Western colonialism, its global rapacity, its convenient, coercive, impermanent alliances, it is no wonder that Islam finds conclusive proof that our culture is either atheist or demonic, because to Muslims a society’s culture is where its guiding spirit is known. Christianity and the West moved with deliberation to become increasingly secularized, but in that uprooted the safe-guards that insured social stability and cohesion. Jesus’ call to radical personal commitment and the freedom to rejoice in God’s creation bloated into defiant self-will and greedy self-indulgence. Divine calls to justice in the present, to love those you see in order to show that you love the God you cannot see, mutated into pretty poems or vague promises of a congenial and cheerful hear-after, or were dismissed as an option for those guilt-ridden by stern upbringing.
You see, in our clarity that Scripture must be interpreted through historical and critical lenses, understood as a product of its time, seen without supernatural accretions–a worthy effort, true to the thrust of Western civilization’s commitment to this world, into which Christ was incarnate, which we love for God’s sake–in that clarity, we somehow became very adept at spiritualizing, and therefore spiriting away, the message of the Gospel. Healing a blind man is only about presumed spiritual insight; Incarnation is our detecting a pervasive subcurrent Claims that palpably could have no scientific viability–after all, seas don’t open to let escaping slaves through, bread doesn’t multiply to feed thousands, dead men don’t come back to life–were seen initially as having primarily spiritual content, and later as fantastic supernatural stories to comfort the gullible, and now considered not necessary for those capable of abstract thought. If the message of Scripture has been spiritualized, then it has been removed from history. If the mooring of faith in history has slipped, then its relationship with the evening news, with office politics, with family tensions, becomes tenuous–merely an interpretation, with which others might not agree, not a revelation of truth.
Ironically, our interest in this world has led us to dismiss it. Our affirmation that all have access to God, and that therefore no single vision ought to be imposed, has curiously led us into laws by which no one can talk of God. Our insistence that the writers of Scripture were ordinary folk seems to lead us to despise ordinary folk. Our determination to manipulate matter to impose our will seems to lead us to deny that God can inhabit matter to accomplish God’s will. We seem to move, as a culture, through a fundamentalism of our own, if by that we mean the assertion that certain beliefs are not to be compromised or questioned, and where resisted to be imposed. But those areas in which our culture holds to fundamentals do seem to have evacuated God, and the Islamic suspicion that we are atheists seems oddly plausible. We who are embedded in this culture take on, whether we will or not, its characteristics, and we need to address how we are perceived if we are to arrive at a fruitful mutual spiritual understanding.
So during this in-between time, wondering what to name where we find ourselves, wondering if other accounts can help us, however troubling their depiction of us, I find myself moved by the massive courage of John’s Prologue. John states that the Word, the ordering principle of all things, has become accessible to us, who are enfleshed, limited, bound by space and time; and he claims that because in knowing Christ, who orders all things, he has seen life become ordered for salvation–the Word was made flesh.
This was no less difficult a message in his own day. In that spiritually hyperactive age, it was easy enough to believe that lesser divinities popped in and out of human skins to amuse themselves and to reward those who feared them or to punish those who did not, while a host of hovering snickering spirits nudged matter this way and that. Even so no one from beggar to philosopher would have claimed that the Godhead, the primal eternal unmoved One, would or even could become involved in the derivative mutable fragments of our life. In our spiritually atrophied age, as much as we scratch the shadow itch of our amputated spiritual limbs with crystals and wander in circles across labyrinths, we also would agree that whatever we mean by God, whether the coherence of astrophysics and genetics or the swirling confluences of Gaia, that abstraction or that energy is not something that could or even would invest in us personally.
And yet, here is this author, saying, “the Word became flesh,” and it matters to know what this means, particularly now, because it was “the light that enlightens all” that was “coming into the world.” Huddled as we are on either side of distrust, with a record of violence erupting between Islam and Christianity throughout our common history and still savage in parts of our world today, it matters to know what that light is that enlightens all. We need urgently an understanding of Christ, of this Incarnate Light, that allows us to reach across that boundary, not to prove our opinions right, but to discover the fullness of the God that was pleased to dwell among us. So the naming that we wait for, in these between times, is not only the naming of the conflict, but also the naming of the hope we share.
John wrote his Gospel for this purpose, not to bar the door, but to open it as wide as possible, not to limit God’s activity to Jesus Christ, but to show that what is, in Norman Pittenger’s terms, “focused” in Jesus was already “diffuse” throughout the world. John does not reinforce exclusivity, but proclaims that in Christ we in truth know the all-pervading God. So Justin Martyr, expounding Christianity for second century pagans, states, “Christ is the Word in whom the whole human race shares. Those who live according to the light of their knowledge are Christians, even though they be considered godless.” Archbishop Temple put it this way, “there is only one divine light; and every man in his measure is enlightened by it.” Kenneth Cracknell, Executive Secretary of the Committee for Relations with People of Other Faiths of the British Council of Churches for ten years, affirms that there have been, are, and will be “men and women whose prayers and actions are molded by other religious traditions, who are not only illumined by [the Word], but who in their response actually ‘come to the Father’ through the One who is risen and ascended and fills all things….”
My concern is not whether or not you will find God at work among the Muslim faithful–I know we will–but whether or not you will recognize God there, whether you will be able to pray together. A “laissez faire” spirituality, in which we toss off that we all have different ways of seeing things, won’t work. True shared prayer cannot grow out of disinterest in each other. An “entitlement” spirituality, in which we insist on our right to our theology, won’t work. True shared prayer cannot grow out of insistence and self-promotion. If we are to speak to those who appear fundamentalist to us, we must be as clear as they about what we believe, respond from as deep a place, and understand their fear and our answer to it. If we are to overcome Christian triumphalism, which sees us as providing all answers, we must admit our ignorance of the lived reality of other faiths, be willing to give up what is not essential in our religion, and consider humbly what it is to share a historic moment, a planet, and our God. We must trust what has been transmitted over time in Christianity, flawed as it is, and rediscover it. Especially in speaking to Muslims, we must relearn the importance of service and community. So let me recommend some things to you. These same things may go some way towards restoring your own sense of God present and active, ordering your daily life, the Word in your flesh, as well.
First, read Scripture and ask how it is already true for all people, by God’s saving grace in Christ. If Christ indeed died for all, how is that already accomplished in all? Read and ask yourself where in other faiths God’s promises are fulfilled. Scripture has for a long time been used to reinforce division. We must learn to read it to encourage and affirm unity.
Second, learn to look for signs of the Spirit active in the world around you. This is learning to trust that God is greater than we grasp, and that our life is safe in God’s hands. We claim that Christ walked among us for healing and reconciliation, so look for evidence of healing and reconciliation in the world and practice calling that the hand of God at work. Do not look for right believers to find right behavior; coming to church might have cured you of that. Look for right behavior first, and trust that God is active there, because, whether they appear to be so or not, you will have found right believers. Then join them in their work.
Finally, work to set up ongoing multifaith prayers for peace. This is the hardest to do, but the most important. True peace is not achieved along parallel tracks. You know someone who is not Christian; open yourself to them and ask them to help you learn to pray together. Any actual vulnerable gathering can relocate our life. Remember that you are not inviting others to your prayers, but asking them to help you look for a way to pray together.
God willing, if we are faithful in our own search to name truly what we are involved in, we will be gathered into the Truth on that day, when we are all gathered up to God, and where we will join those we could not have anticipated, except by God’s grace, to praise, as we do this day, the One God, Eternal Source, Only-begotten Word, Life-giving Spirit, forever.