Monday, October 11, 2010

outside the visible boundaries

The root salama in Arabic, from which Islam is derived, has two meanings, one peace and the other surrender. Those who surrender themselves to the Divine Will gain peace. The central idea of Islam is that one should come to surrender to the will of the Absolute. (Seyyed Hossein Nasr)

We read two great stories from Scripture this week, one from the 2nd Book of Kings and the other from the Gospel of Luke, that both had a similar theme: faith, devotion, gratitude being found outside of the visible boundaries of the community of faith. In the story from 2nd Kings the main character Naaman. He had leprosy and someone sent him to the prophet Elisha to get cleansed of his leprosy. Naaman was from Syria, which was poignant to me since I am on my way there in a week. When he is told to go and plunge in the River Jordan he balks at first and asks why he couldn’t just have bathed in the waters of the Abana or Pharpar rivers back in Damascus! He was the commander of the army of the king of Aram; in other words not only was he a Gentile, he was a sworn enemy of the Israelites. So this is kind of a shocking story in its own day, that the great prophet Elisha is reaching out to someone outside of the bloodline, outside of the covenant, outside the “chosen people.” The other story we heard was about the ten lepers in the Gospel of Luke who were cured by Jesus, but only one came back to say thank you, and he was a Samaritan, a “foreigner,” Jesus says.

I always find it fascinating when we hear Jesus commentary on something in the Hebrew scriptures, and Jesus himself brings this story up early in the Gospel of Luke, right after his inaugural sermon in Nazareth. He opens the scroll to the prophet Isaiah and reads from it, and then proceeds to preach to his hometown people, telling them that the scriptures “are fulfilled in your hearing.” He then tells them that, unfortunately, prophets are never accepted in the prophet’s hometown, and he mentions this story of Naaman along with the story of the widow that Elijah had cured. At which point the good people of Nazareth, his hometown, proceed to throw him out of town and try to kill him, as if to prove his point. This must have some foundational importance for Jesus’ message, because we see him later, as in the reading today, praising someone outside of the fold for their faith (as he will do quite often––the centurion, the “good” Samaritan, etc.): “None but this foreigner”––you can almost hear Jesus spit the word out––“returned to give thanks to God.” So, we had better pay attention.

It makes me wonder: isn’t this ultimately partly what got Jesus killed? The fact that he was relativising the Law, the fact that he was relativising the bloodline of the chosen people, the fact that he was opening the doors so wide that anyone could get in, showing that faith is not a container for the chosen few who have memorized the right words or who happen to have been born in the right country to the right parents, but that faith rather is a thing of the heart, an openness, a broken-openness, a surrender and an act of worship.

“Only one thing is necessary,” Jesus says about Martha’s sister Mary; she showed it when she sat at his feet. What is it? The guy who turns back to say thank you in the story today had it too. What is it? It’s the wedding garment that has to be worn, but what is it? The easy answer is plain ol’ “faith,” but it’s a specific dense kind of faith. Note how Jesus says here, as he says very often, “Your faith has saved you.” Not just your faith, but your faith––not my power, or even God’s power, but your faith. Your own openness of heart.

We should be on the lookout for this kind of faith, I think it’s the kind of faith that the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard calls “the leap of faith.” And I think we should be looking for it in two different places. First of all, we should look for it in ourselves, and if it’s not there, we ought to challenge ourselves to leap, to trust, to surrender, and to turn back in gratitude. I think that gratitude is actually retroactive, it’s already working even before we say thank you. It’s a disposition of heart. The openness that allows us to say “thank you” is the same openness that allows us to say “Please,” and “take pity on me” as the ten lepers did, the same openness that allows us to worship, to trust, and to believe that there is a power greater than us, and that that Power is Benevolent. “Look at the birds of the air, learn from the flowers of the field.”

And the other place we ought to look for it is all around us, and especially we are challenged today to look for it outside of the visible boundaries of our own communities of faith, outside of the places we might expect it. Again, I want to stress that this must have some foundational importance for Jesus’ message. Jesus has not come bringing new rules, but like all the prophets before him he is uncovering a new law that is not a new law at all. It has been there all the time, written on the heart, and all the laws and doctrines and dogmas that get written down are only reasonable facsimiles of that eternal law––what India calls the sanatana dharma. And, as Fr Bede asks in Return to the Center, where is this eternal religion––the sanatana dharma––to be found?
It is to be found in every religion as its ground or source, but it is beyond all formulation. It is the reality behind all rites, the truth behind all dogmas, the justice behind all laws. But it is also to be found in the heart of every [person]. It is the law ‘written on their hearts.’ It is not known by sense or reason but by the experience of the soul in its depths.

Faith in that kind of law was found outside the bloodlines and the covenant of the circumcised people of Israel, before Jesus’ time, during the time of Jesus, and certainly after Jesus as we see in the teachings of both Peter and Paul. And Christians ought to believe that that kind of faith is also even to be found among people who do not profess Jesus as Lord even today, people who are not nominally Christians. This is what the eminent theologian Karl Rahner calls the “anonymous Christian.” (To be fair, I also think it’s why various Islamic teachers have referred to Jesus as a “hidden Sufi”!) It’s similar to St Paul’s famous teaching from the letter to the Romans where he says that when Gentiles do what the law requires, they show that what the law requires is written on their hearts. Because, Paul says, it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous, but the doers of the law. (That winds up being the basis for the Catholic teaching on natural law, by the way.)

So we should look for and celebrate all the leaps of faith that go on in the world around us. They may not look like us, or anyone we know, but it is amazing how often we see such great faith being made manifest in people who are outside the visible bounds of our own religious traditions, people who instinctively do what is in the “law” without perhaps ever having heard or without having accepted it as it was presented to them. If we open our eyes it’s amazing how often we see wisdom and understanding in unexpected places, how often we see a humble kind of piety outside of church folks, how often we experience an amazing deep knowledge manifested in the most surprising places. And how often we see charity and joy, peace, patience and kindness being carried out by folks that are not religious at all, startling acts of generosity and gentleness, self-donation and sacrifice even on the part of so-called atheists. We should celebrate it wherever we see it, even and maybe especially if we see it in someone outside of what we think of as our covenant, outside whom we consider to be the “chosen people.” And we should imitate them, too, because those things are the fruits and gifts of the Spirit, the spirit of faith, devotion, surrender and gratitude, the fruits and gifts of fearless abandon to the benevolence Source of the Universe that Jesus calls his Abba.

I saw it manifest again yesterday as we gathered for our fifth annual Tent of Abraham in Santa Cruz. This is a gathering of Jews, Christians and Muslims once a year, all the children of Abraham, a practice started by a rabbi in New York after the terrorist attacks in 2001. A wonderful crew of folks put together the environment––a big pavilion in the middle of the hall of Holy Cross parish––and then we had the lighting of a candle from each tradition, then a reading or chanting of a piece of Scripture from each tradition, some songs, and then a good discussion in small groups, mainly centered around the role of women in our various traditions. Then finally we had a period of blessing, sang a little more and then ate a great meal. With the world going crazy out there and people tearing each other apart over politics and land and power, I still believe that it is these “well-worn paths between huts” that are going to be our salvation as a race.

I'm preparing for this big trip, leaving Saturday first to the mideast and then through Europe and plan on sending posts from there.