Friday, April 26, 2019

Audacious Invitation

ohn the Evangelist is crystal clear about his purpose in telling the story of the Apostle Thomas’ first encounter with the Risen Christ.  “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” refers to you, to me, and to John’s audience.  It is likely that the Gospel of John circulated in its present form somewhere between the years 90 and 120.  There is some evidence and some opinion that it is based on much older material, but in all likelihood neither John nor any of the canonical gospels was written until 40-50 years after Jesus.   By that time, hosts of people had come into the Christian fold, none of whom had had direct contact with Jesus of Nazareth.  By the decade of the 60’s, it is likely that most if not all of the original band of disciples had been martyred or had otherwise died.  Believing without seeing was clearly an existential issue, not a moral or theological one in the main.  How can one stake one’s life on a man who died a criminal’s death and whose supposed resurrection from the dead was quite possibly, to quote the words of Luke, “an idle tale,” that couldn’t reasonably be believed?  During the decades in which the gospels were most likely written there were several waves of horrible persecutions.  So “staking one’s life” literally was not a matter of quietly joining a community dedicated to personal growth and moral improvement but rather identifying with a very vulnerable movement whose members daily risked being murdered atrociously.
Icon of St. Thomas and the Risen Christ

The adjective that has stuck with Thomas is “doubting.”  “Doubting Thomas” has long carried the implication that somehow Thomas ought to have believed without doubting.  Personally I believe that to be utter rubbish.  Not because we mustn’t of necessity get past the need for physically observing the Risen Jesus before we can believe in him, but because doubt is not an enemy of faith but a necessary component of faith.  If we never doubt, question, probe, examine, test the faith that we have as little children, we can never grow up and own that faith as mature adults.  In fact, we run the terrible risk of never realizing some of Jesus’ greatest challenges if we allow ourselves to remain stuck at the first stage of faith development.  Faith in Jesus is very much a relationship, and like all relationships if it is to grow and last, it must shed the illusion that it can do so without changing over time.  It should and it must, or else it will atrophy, wither, and become utterly useless.

But there is another outcome of this story of so-called “Doubting Thomas” that has been disastrous for the Church.  And that is a great misunderstanding of what belief is in the first place.  In our world, belief generally means to give assent to, to accept something as factually true.  Do you believe what you read?  If you do, that means that you accept as factual and provable what you read.   Do you believe that 2 + 2 = 4?  If you do, it means that you not only trust the information that someone taught you years ago that two and two did make four, but you have experienced that mathematical equation every day of your life.  Do you believe what you hear on a given news outlet or on  an internet site?  Ah, there’s a different question.  If you do, you are quite likely believing that source on the basis of someone else’s authority, or on the basis of your own philosophy or opinions, not things that are easily verifiable. 

So the question that we need urgently to ask is what does belief mean. At the risk of getting a bit teachy here, I invite you to look carefully at some words used in the telling of this story.  First, the word that John uses to mean “belief” or “to have faith” or with the addition of one letter “not to believe” or “to be faithless” is a word [πιστευω] that comes from an old root from which we get words like abide, awaiting, persuading, confiding, trusting. It is the same root out of which grow words like faith, fiancé, and confident.  That tells us a good deal about belief.  Almost nothing in those words has much to do with giving intellectual assent to a proposition in our heads, our minds.  But almost every one of them indicates an action that has to do with an attraction of one person in relation to another.  Take fiancé, for example.  The minute that word is said in English we immediately know that we are talking about a relationship, indeed a relationship we assume to be loving.  We also know that it suggests a future in which two persons are going to be married and thus share a life.  Keep that in mind as we look at another text.

In a few minutes we are corporately going to use the words “We believe” as we state the words of the Nicene Creed.  The English word “believe” comes from another old root from which spring words in various languages meaning caring, desiring, loving.  From the same root come words meaning things like pleasing, pleasant, and pleasure.  See how far that is from a notion that in saying the Creed we are reciting a string of things that we simply agree are factually true, historically accurate?  It is more a matter of saying we are committing ourselves to a life characterized by desiring, loving, giving and receiving pleasure.  Now that might suggest a quite different experience when you’re saying the Creed besides running down a checklist of impossible things that somebody said you ought to think are true.  Try thinking of the Creed as the marriage vows between you and your Creator-Lover!

And speaking of “creed,” let’s take a look at that word also.  In Latin the verb for “I believe is credo.  Let’s take a look at that for a moment.  Its ancient root is kerd, from which we get in lots of languages words like “heart, cardiac, cordial, credence, credit.”  It also produced words that point to the idea of putting trust in someone or something.

Now we are ready to return to the story of Thomas with a little more clarity about what it and in the larger scheme of things the Gospel of John means by “believing.”  Believing is giving one’s heart to someone, being or becoming engaged and married to someone, trusting wholeheartedly in someone.  And that someone is one with whom one has a relationship of love and pleasure.  That, I think you’ll agree, is a far cry from thinking in the abstract that something is true.  Granted, truth is something we expect in a love relationship—truth, not lies, not pretense or sleight of hand.  Truth, like trust, is an essential component of love among beings, without which no viable community can exist, let alone function. 

When Jesus says to Thomas, “Be no longer unbelieving, but believing,” he is saying in effect, “Put your trust in me. Place your confidence in me. Give me your heart, Thomas.”

Then—then—how powerful an image becomes of Jesus’ invitation to Thomas:  “Put your finger here and see my hands.  Reach out your hand and thrust it into my side.”  Interestingly, the text does not say whether Thomas actually does these things, and you can imagine it either way.  But the invitation of Jesus is clear:  Touch me; don’t hang back. I invite you to be in a love relationship with me that exceeds even all that we have experienced in the old life: my pain, my death, my resurrection, my scars.   Be one with me.” 

"Place your hand here in my side..."
It is interesting to compare this story with the one that precedes it in the same chapter.  When Mary Magdalene stands weeping outside the tomb and recognizes Jesus when he calls her by name, he says, “Do not hold on to me.”  In the Latin text he says, “Nolo me tangere,” or “don’t touch me, for I have not yet ascended.”  Remember that these are stories told to convey messages, not a historical record meant to be consistent.  Each gives us a piece of truth.  One gives us the imperative not to try to possess Jesus, not to hold on to the past, but to embrace the future instead.  The other gives us the joyful invitation to enter into nothing less than a passionate union with the Risen Lord, emboldened with the words, take your body and place it in mine.  You can live in me and I in you.  It takes us a lifetime perhaps to mull over these two messages.  Both amount to, “Trust me, love me, be one with me.” 

I asserted a few minutes ago that the common understanding of the story of Thomas with the message that doubt is dangerously opposed to faith has been disastrous for the Church.  I now assert even more strongly that the message to become one with Jesus is for human beings truly to be saved: saved from despair, saved for  the healing not only of ourselves but of the world. It all fits together:  without death there is no resurrection, without resurrection life has nowhere to go but to death.  The risen Lord comes among his followers who, far from understanding what is happening, hear him saying, “Peace to you.”  Shalom, salvation, wholeness, healing, sanity, wellness, balance, health, the mending of brokenness, the awakening of bodily pleasure, the fulfillment of hope. 

It is a gift.  We can accept it or turn it down.   But the Risen Lord has amply demonstrated that he won’t go away, except to come among us again and again.  And each time he comes, the invitation is renewed, “Come unto me.  Put your finger here.  Feel my wounds, see my scars, thrust your hand into my body. Unite with me.  I want to live in you. And I want you to be a part of me.”
"... that we may evermore dwell in him and he in us."

A sermon for The Second Sunday of Easter, based on John 20:19-31.

photo at left:  Still Life with Bread and Wine, Abraham Guntz, Romania

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2019

Monday, April 22, 2019

Why Hold Religious Authorities Accountable?

I really understand how people who have grown up in a faith tradition can be so formed by that tradition that it is imponderable to consider throwing over the traces and abandoning it. They stick with it despite centuries of abuse, hypocrisy, even crime. To the outsider, such loyalty might seem utterly stupid. They suppose that only the stubborn, the simple, or the fearful would be immovably lodged in such a place, bonded to institutions that they would even advise others to repudiate were others yoked to such communities. Their rationales for remaining sound to others like the excuses of abused spouses, sticking with their marriage vows, hoping that someday he'll change, or that love might at last have the effect of wooing her towards a kinder life, or just plain inertia.

It isn't, of course, just religious traditions that have such a lock on people. But they are alone among the inventions of humanity the systems most likely to give deep meaning to life, storehouses of stories that address complexities that cannot be faced by reason alone. They are repositories of myths, symbols, rites that adorn ordinary lives and punctuate days and years with celebrations. It is interesting how when people whose intellect and integrity have steered them away from any trace of religious practice will, at the time of death, naturally borrow elements of a long-discredited tradition in order to shape their mourning, if is nothing more than the adaptation of the old impulse to gather and verbalize the meaning of a dead friend's life or a lover's importance. Notice how people in purely secular environments will arrange chairs in a way that perhaps even unconsciously replicates an ancient experience of religious community.

Human beings have evolved to be storytellers. All of our literature, all of our structured games, the entirety of our art, even the debased and vulgar forms we keep inventing to pretend communication--tweeting comes to mind--are born of the desire to tell each other for good or ill, false or true, information we on some level consider worth passing on.

I am a product of a religious tradition, one might say several, in fact. And for nearly half a century I've been a religious functionary. God knows and I know how easy it is to justify wrongdoing, to excuse oneself from following rules sanctioned for all but applied only to others. It is possible but not easy to encounter people at their most vulnerable and not be tempted at least in the mind to exploit that vulnerability to feed some gnawing hunger in the pit of one's soul. But in all honesty, I have trouble seeing how day after day, week after week, season in and season out, people can perform rites and intone liturgies and propound sacred texts without somehow realizing that the point of all the cultic paraphernalia is to lead human beings to be better to ourselves and to each other than, left to our native impulses, we generally are. Leaders who betray us, charismatic tongues and compelling visions aside, lead us way past temptation and into the pitch of damnation and ought to be, must be, called out.

Often the only ones thus calling out are those who are self-sidelined from the systems, those who either disdain them by nature or have sickened to the point of leaving. I respect them for bearing their own witness to Integrity. But even they who don't identify with faith traditions or religious institutions continue to be human--frequently exemplary humans--and as humans they have the same need for meaning, the same pains to endure, the same mortality to face, the same challenge to cope as those who salve their consciences through religious rites and spiritual discipline.

An old discredited heresy in the Church is that of Donatism. Donatists held that the moral defects and flaws of clergy who betrayed their communities by surrendering their custodianship of holy tradition had the effect of invalidating any of the sacraments such clergy administered. I see the point of Donatism but don't want to be a Donatist myself. I have lived, and still do live, with the knowledge that some have looked me in the face--well not exactly in my face--and in effect have said, "You betrayed me. So I thought you were straight. And lo you are queer. And thus I declare you a hypocrite. I renounce you." I cannot deny (my dreams won't let me) that my heart is stung still by the part of me that was the superego driven Good Boy who wanted desperately to do the right thing and hoped in the process to win approval. I don't want to drop into another hole by casting stones from my own glass house. I take no joy in failing to forgive others as I have been forgiven. I am not talking about God. I am talking about me, and the thanks I owe to a community and a host of friends who have embraced me despite knowing a Frank they once didn't know so well.

I have just given you an example of how faith has formed me. It has not made me superior to anybody else on the planet. But it has made me from an early age acutely aware that telling the Truth is inseparable from honor itself. Lying, preying on the defenseless, cloaking one's misdoings in self-righteousness, self-aggrandizement, and shameless exploitation of one's own status are not just sins of the flesh, if by flesh is meant ordinary bodily life. They are some of the unconscionable behaviors that destroy human community, weaken the very fibers that hold us together, and mock the human soul struggling to find meaning, if not enlightenment, in this life.

I am not about to be convinced that this is a condition that can be chalked off to what Mark Twain called "ordinary human cussedness," the excuse that "humans will be humans" just as they always have been. There is such a thing as human culpability and "ordinary cussedness" and it is pervasive. But there is also such a thing as accountability. And those to whom others entrust leadership are those of whom accountability must be required.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2019

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Losing a Sacred Site

his morning, two days after the horrendous burning of Nôtre Dame, I reached for a dish towel.  The one on the rack was a red, white, and blue striped towel, a memento from France.  I’ve had it for close to twenty years now, a gift from Robert, a friend who taught college French during the time he and I lived in the same community.  Back from a trip to Paris he brought me the dish towel.  The blue stripe bears an image of the Eiffel Tower.  The red, an image of Nôtre Dame.

Like lots of things of this sort, the towel has transitioned from gift to everyday usage to being well on its way towards the rag pile.  I wash it, dry it, use it, hang it up with scarcely a thought of France or of Nôtre Dame, but surprisingly often on some level remembering Robert, whose death several years ago I discovered belatedly through meeting his son quite by surprise.  

Something about the confluence of friendship, death, and the near loss of Nôtre Dame is leading me at this moment to get beyond my shock and grief over the fire.  Why would I care so much about an 850-year-old building if it were not a friend?  Why would I perhaps lament its tragedy more openly and obviously than I grieve for friend Robert? 

The answer goes back a long time. My sixth grade class in Conway, South Carolina, reached the chapter in our social studies text that introduced me to the Middle Ages.  There on the page was a black-and-white photograph of the Cathedral of Nôtre Dame.  I was mesmerized by it.  I looked at it for what seemed like (and probably was) days.  I learned what flying buttresses were, the architectural significance of the Gothic arch, the symbolism of the rose window, the cruciform pattern of medieval cathedrals.  In a day when international travel was so rare as to be generally restricted to the rich, I could only imagine actually seeing Nôtre Dame or any other cathedral. Yet, on some level, I knew I had to.

So, after three years of college French but never a trip to France until 2010, I stood one early fall morning in a long queue awaiting the opening of the cathedral.  Finding it darker and much smaller than in my boyhood I’d imagined, I moved through its arches and into its art-filled nooks and crannies trying to make out inscriptions on tombs and fancying what the funeral of Louis XIV might have been like in that sacred space.  Later I stood on the Pont Saint-Louis in something of a reverie, looking towards its east end, remembering my boyhood dream as my eyes scanned those flying buttresses. 

 There is no way of explaining why or how places become sacred to us.  Chances are the spot on which Nôtre Dame was built was a sacred site long before Our Lady birthed Jesus, that being the usual case with holy places.  We point to age, beauty, art, architecture, history, prayer, priceless relics and sacred story and are able to say why a building is more than important, particularly one that has lasted nearly a millennium.  But there is more.  Down deep there is something about a sacred place that can reach out and capture some inarticulate longing, even if it approaches us in the flat form of a photograph. Then memory does its work. Fixed in the mind is the image or actual experience of the place, fettered to a place in the heart that can’t be explained in terms of anything on that list of age and beauty and art and all the rest.  Indeed sometimes spaces are sacred to us with few or none of those characteristics so obvious in a medieval cathedral. A church in our childhood, a cemetery where parents and friends lie buried, the bell tower at an alma mater, the woods we roamed as kids, the creek that ran through summer camp where we caught tadpoles: the loss of any such place we experience as a soul wound.  We grieve.

Not surprisingly, those who lack any such connection to the sacred space react quite differently. There are more important things, they say.  What about this or that or the other human need?  What about someone else’s burial ground being bulldozed to make a parking lot, or some suffering far worse than a building become an inferno? What about…?  What about…?  And the mantra of culture is not infrequently, “It will be replaced.”  And even the harsh, “Get over it.”  Replacement is never the same as recollection. Getting over a loss never equals healing.

Today it’s Nôtre Dame, tomorrow it’s some place else.  As Heraclitus described the life of the world, “It ever was, and is, and shall be, ever-living fire, in measures being kindled and in measures going out.”[1] As my friend David Townsend, a medieval scholar, said yesterday, “This is the way of cathedrals. They burn. They get bombed.  They collapse.”  He was not being dismissive, only telling the truth. The same is true when a human body becomes a corpse.  Rather than seeing this as an invitation to “get over it,” or to ignore the pain, what I am beginning dimly to see is that this “ever-living fire,” the constant change of which Heraclitus speaks, is itself the Holy.  God is not working in spite of the fire.  God manifests as fire, just as God manifests in the rose window, the roof, the spire, the altar of Nôtre Dame.  The Holy—called by whatever name—is the energy, the Spirit expressed in every body in the cosmos.  And the Holy is also the pure consciousness that upholds and indwells the entirety of the universe—or, if you will, the multiverse. 
The morning after: the Cathedral still stands, battered and scarred but still with us.

Holding onto the cathedral, the ground, the embodiment of the sacred, is something so human we are not about to forfeit it.  Yet whatever we gain by holding onto anything we can count as loss compared to the liberation that comes with accepting the flow and flux of change that are the nature of life.  Beyond the things that come and go is the still point, of which Eliot speaks:

            Love is the unfamiliar Name
            Behind the hands that wove
            The intolerable shirt of flame
            Which human power cannot remove.
               We only live, only suspire
               Consumed by either fire or fire.

            And all shall be well and
            All manner of thing shall be well
            When the tongues of flame are in-folded
            Into the crowned knot of fire
            And the fire and the rose are one.[2]

[1] Quotation found on the internet at , accessed April 17, 2019.

[2] T. S. Eliot, “Little Gidding,” in The Complete Poems and Plays 1909-1950 (New York: Harcourt & Brace, 1967), pp. 144, 145.