Friday, June 13, 2008

Dead Ducks

Two religion blogs that I regularly read, Father Jake and Adventus, recently posted on an old sermon by Robert Capon, an Episcopal priest and prolific author. In the sermon, Father Capon discusses the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, Luke 18:9-14:

‘…He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’…’

Most exegesis of that parable focuses on notions of being humble before God, but Father Capon gets at something else:

‘...The law, the commandments, are efforts at morality, humility, spirituality and, above all, are efforts at religion, are efforts at trying to do something that will get us right with God. All don't work. Therefore God, as Jesus speaks of Him, doesn't risk trying to save the world by human good behavior. The Pharisee's mistake, therefore, is not that he is saying something that it is just proud or a little bit arrogant, but that what he is saying is dead wrong. His goodness is irrelevant to the problem that he is talking about. Therefore, God says that the tax collector who simply looks at his shoe tips and says, "I'm no good," is justified. Now, why?

The point is that this parable is about death and resurrection. It is not about morality, spirituality or anything else. It is about the fact that both the Pharisee and the Publican (the tax collector), are dead ducks. The Pharisee is a very high class kind of dead duck, but they are both dead as far as being able to reconcile with God is concerned. The point about all of this is that the reconciliation God has in mind for them is totally dependent on their death…

…Now you ask yourself a question. Do you like that parable? Of course, you don't like it. The point is that it violates every sense you and I have about the fact that we really are basically doing fairly well. If only other people were as nice and considerate and as wonderful as we are, the world would be a better place to live in and God says, "No. That will not work." It can't be done that way. It can't be done by people who think they are winners. It can only be done by people who are willing to admit they are losers and then who are willing to trust God in the death of their losing to do it for them, to deliver them the gift of a reconciliation with God...’

Father Jake and Adventus use this as a starting point to discuss Grace and the necessary non-transactional nature of it; ie God doesn’t give out Grace for specific acts, being good and the like. Christian concepts of Grace, forgiveness, salvation, etc. are not mathematical; notions of spreadsheets tallying your good and evil deeds waiting for you at the pearly gates is not what Christianity is about. To Christians, Grace is free and Grace is ‘beyond price.’ One has the free will to accept it or not, of course. And, as Father Capon says, this is upsetting, as it has nothing to do with merit – whether or not one deserves it. Hitler and Gandhi are both offered Grace.

But what got my interest in this was the notion of Grace being necessarily tied to death. Here’s Father Capon again:

‘…I don't believe in resurrection. I don't believe in eternal life. I don't believe in life after death. I don't believe in the hereafter. Those are all opinions. I simply trust Jesus that He will deliver to me as He rose from the dead, He will raise me. Whatever that means, however it works, I trust Him because in His death is my reconciliation and in my reconciliation is my joy in Him...’

To me this statement works on a number of levels, for the notion of both Grace’s requisite connection to death (at least according to Father Capon) and the notion of the resurrection of Jesus (which I also don’t believe in) can both still work to an agnostic such as me when ‘death’ is viewed as a metaphor (either our own or Jesus’), and not necessarily as something physical, medical or historical (as in the crucifixion). Death being defined not by one’s heart not beating, but by one’s heart not feeling.

Most of my interest in Christianity is objective, as an outsider; I don’t have a horse in this race as it were. But I am intensely involved by choice as one who sees the profound influences of Christianity in our society, both good and bad. This makes me a bit of an odd duck: the vast majority of people who study Christianity as much as I do feel called to do so for personal spiritual reasons, unlike me. I then end up in a weird position of being an agnostic apologist for Christianity, agnostic because while I can be inspired by the teachings of Jesus, as many agnostics are, I don’t consider myself a Christian since Christianity is not primarily about the Sermon on the Mount (though I wish it were) but the Passion on the Cross. And I don’t believe in the historical fact of the resurrection.

But if one reads the Passion using resurrection from death as a metaphor, rather than a physical event, and by viewing Jesus’ death and resurrection as a ‘closing’ and ‘reopening’ of his heart, then the Passion can be a powerful inspiration to an agnostic such as myself.

Or to put it another way, as the quote from Terry Eagleton on the top banner of Adventus says:

‘…The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you…’