public theology and the present darkness

(Eph 6:10-20; Lk 13:31-35)

There is a thread of something that runs between the two readings last Thursday. In the gospel Jesus is lamenting over Jerusalem that ‘kills the prophets and stones those sent to you’; and in the reading from the Letter to the Ephesians, here at the end of this cycle, Paul has a sense of his present age. But first I would like to make one comment about the other readings from Ephesians we’ve heard in the last two days. There’s a sentence which we actually left out when it was read at Mass on Tuesday of this week, Paul’s advice to women: wives be submissive to your husbands, which in these days would seem quite misogynistic; and then his advice to slaves, which we heard yesterday, sounds so unenlightened to our modern ears, simply obey your masters!

As I understand it, Paul thought that the end times, the second coming of Christ, was imminent, that it was going to happen in his lifetime, any day now. He had no interest in changing or overturning social structures or cultural norms. He wanted everyone to stay in the state they were in (witness his advice even to married people also in 1 Corinthians 7) and to make the best of it, live uprightly in the midst of their current situation, just avoid sin. He didn’t really address institutional sin or social evils. As he said in the Letter to the Philippians, he wanted his readers to be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, in which they would shine like stars in the world.[1] It is only later when Christianity in general starts to realize that it is going to be around for a while and so is going to be an intrinsic part of the culture that it has to figure out how to do social critique and make bigger declarations about things like war and peace. How many centuries will it take before we say something about slavery or about the rights of workers or about economic justice? It will take 20 centuries for the church to say something about women’s rights, and to finally say something about the environment, let alone things undreamed-of in the 1st century like medical ethics in an era of cloning and genetic manipulation.

But my ears always perk up when I hear St. Paul say things like our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness. Alongside our own personal struggles there is also a collective struggle always going on in our collective soul, in the anima mundi, if you will, in society at large, in the world at large.

Speaking of the present darkness, I heard a marvelous interview the other day (I’ve actually listened to it several times already) with David Brooks and E. J. Dionne, political columnists for the New York Times and the Washington Post, respectively, one a conservative Jew and the other a liberal Catholic, again respectively. They were talking about “public theology,” saying that it’s one thing to believe in the separation of church and state, but it’s a whole other thing to separate religion and politics. They were lamenting the days when there was such a thing as public theologians. They mentioned of course folks like Dr. King and Dorothy Day (coming from a conservative Jewish columnist, mind you!), also Abraham Joshua Heschel, and they were looking back to the days when Paul Tillich was on the cover of TIME magazine. They also mentioned Reinhold Niebuhr several times, who was such an influential critic of American social and political institutions and who thought that Christianity had a direct prophetical vocation in relation to culture; he wanted a “vital prophetic Christianity.” And this one thing that David Brooks wrote really touched me, concerning this particular campaign season. He said that

There is no uplift in this race. There is an entire absence … of any effort to appeal to the higher angels of our nature. There is an assumption … that we are self-seeking creatures rather than also loving, serving, hoping, dreaming, co-operating creatures. There is a presumption … that the lowest motivations are the most real. At some point there will have to be a new vocabulary and a restored anthropology emphasizing love, friendship, faithfulness, solidarity and neighborliness that pushes people toward connection rather than distrust.[2]

They then got into a little partisan spat about who was worse, but that’s beside the point. It is never an easy thing to sift through the details and figure out the Christian answer to social issues. But it’s bigger than that: there is a spirit of our age, there is a present darkness too up against which we have to realize we are swimming as well. We certainly have the right and duty to have an informed conscience, and to speak out when we know what we’re talking about. (That’s a big caveat, mind you!). But Paul is right too, and I recall that the prayers that we used to say as we put on our habit were drawn from this reading from the Letter to the Ephesians: take up the whole armor of God (for the tunic)… fasten the belt of truth around your waist (for the cincture), and put on the breastplate of righteousness (the scapular)… Take the helmet of salvation (for the capuche)… There’s a line in a song by Sting that goes “People go crazy in congregations; / they only get better one by one.” Maybe this is mainly our “job” as contemplatives, as monastics: it does still have to begin here, with us being converted, individually, so that we can be yeast in the dough, salt in the earth, and shine like stars in the midst of this present darkness.  That would be a good start on a new vocabulary and a restored anthropology that emphasizes love, friendship, faithfulness, solidarity and neighborliness.

[1] Phil 2:15

[2] David Brooks’ column, Sept. 30, 2016. The ellipses take the place of the words “in both candidates” and “in both campaigns.”

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