Mircea Eliade (1907-1986) wrote The Sacred and the Profane. He was a religious historian from Romania, a complex genius shaped by two wars (and tainted by fascism). He migrated to the US in 1956. In seminary I was introduced to a tiny sliver of the tip of his iceberg. An English translation of his brief book, sub-titled “The Nature of Religion,” is available as a free PDF at the above link.
As a naive young pastor, I thought my role was to bring the sacred to the profane. Thomas Merton helped me see my role (as a human, not necessarily as a pastor) was to name and celebrate the sacred that is present always and everywhere in the universe. Sometimes, when we name and celebrate the sacred, we dis-cover a love that has been hidden or obscured. From Eliade:
..in the case of those moderns who proclaim that they are nonreligious … the possibility of reintegrating a religious vision of life lies at a great depth….of the unconscious; it has been “forgotten.”
May 2022 be a year to dis-cover and re-member love (i.e., the sacred) that permeates our secular (i.e., profane) world.
During the first COVID wave in 2020, it was sad to see houses of worship closed. I saw a sign that read: “Church closed until further notice.” It’s even tougher when a historic congregation disbands, though sometimes new life is breathed into an old facility “under new management.”
The English word “church” does triple-duty. It can refer to the building in which Christians gather, the people who gather there, or the institution(s) of Christianity. In the Greco-Roman world, Christians were the ecclesia (“the assembly” or “the called”); the building where they met was a basilica.
Recent tornadoes reminded us that a basilica may be destroyed, but not the ecclesia. The hymn, “We Are the Church” by Richard Avery and Donald Marsh makes this distinction:
"The church is not a building, the church is not a steeple,
the church is not a resting place, the church is a people."
COVID brought an unwelcome sabbatical from in-person worship. We’re just now getting back into that rhythm. With the Omicron variant, I was relieved to see a supply of masks and a “masks required” sign on the church door. Our pastor thanks everyone for “masking up” for the health of the community.
We arrived at Christmas Eve communion during the prelude. We found a seat near the front of the crowded sanctuary. I felt overwhelming gratitude for every detail of the service. Great worship is an inspired art. It doesn’t just “happen.” During the Christmas hymns, I was teary and choked up.
At many points, especially as we lifted our little candles that brought light to the darkened sanctuary, I realized how much I’ve missed in-person worship.
Conservatism is essentially an explanation of how communities produce wisdom and virtue. During the late 20th century, both the left and the right valorized the liberated individual over the enmeshed community. On the right, that meant less Edmund Burke, more Milton Friedman. The right’s focus shifted from wisdom and ethics to self-interest and economic growth. As George F. Will noted in 1984, an imbalance emerged between the “political order’s meticulous concern for material well-being and its fastidious withdrawal from concern for the inner lives and moral character of citizens.” The purpose of the right became maximum individual freedom, and especially economic freedom, without much of a view of what that freedom was for, nor much concern for what held societies together.
I quote David Brooks, George Will, Peggy Noonan, Anne Applebaum and other conservatives of substance because I believe the most critical issue facing our nation is how to discern the difference between conservatism and authoritarianism.
Various translations of an ancient proverb express my appreciation for David Brooks’ recent essay in The Atlantic (see yesterday’s post). The party whose 2016 candidate claimed “I alone can fix it” renominated him in 2020 without a party platform, a de facto admission that heis our platform. The “Party of Lincoln” missed an opportunity to draw from several centuries of principled wisdom, but Brooks keeps that wisdom before us in a timely word fitly spoken:
True conservatism’s great virtue is that it teaches us to be humble about what we think we know; it gets human nature right, and understands that we are primarily a collection of unconscious processes, deep emotions, and clashing desires. Conservatism’s profound insight is that it’s impossible to build a healthy society strictly on the principle of self-interest. It’s an illusion, as T. S. Eliot put it, to think that a society in which people don’t have to be good can thrive. Life is essentially a moral enterprise, and the health of your community will depend on how well it does moral formation—how well it nurtures ordered inner lives and helps balance sentiments, desires, and motivations. Finally, conservatism welcomes you into a great procession down the ages. Society “is a partnership in all science,” Burke wrote,
a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue, and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.
David Brooks, 60, “fell in love with conservatism” in his 20s through the writings of Edmund Burke (1729-1797) and others. Brooks recently wrote in The Atlantic that “the rich philosophical perspective that dazzled me” had “a deeper and more resonant account of human nature, a more comprehensive understanding of wisdom, an inspiring description of the highest ethical life and the nurturing community.”
Brooks affirms the classic principles of conservative thought with soft-spoken, understated eloquence. He discussed his article in a December 8 appearance on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, where he said the conservatism that inspired him in young adulthood was “about humility and moral formation,” but he hears many conservatives today say, ““We’re threatened, we’re besieged. They’re out to get us. The outsiders are out to get us, the immigrants.” And so, says Brooks, “It’s not an abundance mentality, it’s a scarcity mentality.”
Brooks causes me to ask: “Am I operating with an attitude of abundance or an attitude of scarcity?”
Charles Page, an old friend and biblical archaeologist extraordinaire, included in the Foreword of his book Jesus & the Land a story appropriate for Christmas Day. As a freshly-minted graduate student, Charles returned to Israel to meet Bargil Pixner (1921-2002), who became his friend and mentor:
He took me to Capernaum and said he wanted to “see what I had learned.” We entered the Franciscan park where people come to see the ruins of St. Peter’s house and the fourth-century CE synagogue, and Bargil said, “So, tell me what you see!” I proceeded to talk about lintels, inscriptions, the insulaea, and the synagogue. He listened patiently. When I finished talking, he said, “Look deeper and tell me what you see.” I explained to him about the millstones, olive presses, harbor, and the street running alongside the synagogue to the lake. He asked again, “What else?” I said, “That’s about all I see.”
He led me into the synagogue, and we sat on the bench that surrounds the interior wall, I could tell that he was disappointed, but I did not know why. He turned to me and said, “You must see Jesus here. If you do not see Jesus in the ruins of Capernaum, you should have studied physics. We are involved in biblical archaeology. Our job is to know him and to make him known. Seeing him helps us to know him. Knowing him leads us to love him. Loving him will help us to serve him and to make a difference in the world.“
When I look at a nativity scene (a creche, a manger scene), I hear Pixner’s question: “What do you see?”
Leander Keck, 93, taught theology, particularly the New Testament, at Wellesley, Vanderbilt, Emory and Yale. I encountered his brilliant mind at Emory, where he said, “I’ve never failed to learn something when I read Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976).”
Bultmann wrote that the Prologue of John’s Gospel is based on a hymn about Wisdom, who “seeks a dwelling” with humanity, “but is rejected” and “returns to the heavenly world, and sojourns there, hidden.” Wisdom (with God at creation) is “transferred” to the Torah (the “Law”), finding a home among the Jewish people there. John uses this hymn about Wisdom, but substitutes Word, saying the Word (with God at creation) found a home in Jesus: “the Word became flesh and lived among us….”
John’s Prologue complements the infancy stories in Matthew and Luke to help us see Jesus as Word–embodying and communicating the fresh-yet-timeless Wisdom of a pure, unbounded love that is undeserved and unconditional.
Gloria Watkins’ (1952-2021) no-caps pen name, bell hooks, honored great-grandmother Bell Blair Hooks. In poetry, prose and classroom, bell hooks gave us a modern rendition of Mary’s Song.
Beth Dailey quotes Ain’t I a Woman: “It is obvious that many women have appropriated feminism to serve their own ends, especially those white women who have been at the forefront of the movement; but rather than resigning myself to this appropriation I choose to re-appropriate the term ‘feminism’, to focus on the fact that to be ‘feminist’ in any authentic sense of the term is to want for all people, female and male, liberation from sexist role patterns, domination, and oppression.”
In an engaging 2015 conversation with philosopher George Yancy she described herself as a “Buddhist Christian,” saying, “I believe wholeheartedly that the only way out of domination is love.” Yancy asked about her often-used phrase, “imperialist white supremacy capitalist patriarchy.”
She replied: “We can’t begin to understand the nature of domination if we don’t understand how these systems connect with one another. … For so many years in the feminist movement, women were saying that gender is the only aspect of identity that really matters ….Then we had so many race-oriented folks who were saying, ‘Race is the most important thing. We don’t even need to be talking about class or gender.’ So for me, that phrase always reminds me of a global context, of the context of class, of empire, of capitalism, of racism and of patriarchy. Those things are all linked….”
On Monday, driving my aunt back to her assisted living home, I borrowed a line from her mother. About 66 years ago, as a pre-schooler, I arrived at her mom’s house and asked, “Where’s Pete?” Of the many delights of those visits, Pete was near the top. She said, “Pete’s in heaven.”
We were on our way to Buddy’s BBQ, a delight of our monthly trips to the retina specialist for an eye injection. With undying motherly concern about her son’s lunch plans, she asked, “Where’s Charles?” I thought of her mother as I replied, “Charles is in heaven.”
She and I are comfortable with such conversations because it’s hard to remember who’s where. In a phone call last winter, when I asked about snow, she said, “Not here, but I called mom and they had some snow.” Her mom has been with Pete in the Greater Realm since 1995.
I said, “You cared for Charles a long time before he died. A mom always makes sure her child is OK.” As we motored through the Appalachian hill country, I began humming “I Wonder as I Wander.”