13 September 2009

"Fidelity with" NOT "Fidelity to"

[NB. I've been working on this homily for three days and it shows. Very muddled. I would not actually preach it. Too many leaps, too many untied strings of thought. Oh well. . .take what you can].

24th Sunday OT: Isa 50.5-9; Jas 2.14-18; Mark 8.27-35
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Holy Rosary Priory, Houston, TX

Do we reward those who speak to us clearly and openly? Do we thank them for their clarity and openness? If the American political scene at the moment is any indication, we not only fail to appreciate frank communication, we punish it with contempt, outrage, and demands for apology. It is extremely difficult to tell the truth and not come away beaten and bruised and quite possibly unemployed or prosecuted for a crime. The result? Those charged with leading us dodge, weave, duck, and bob for all they are worth and pray that no one catches them with solid left-hook or a hidden-camera expose. Of course, that our leaders might be punished for telling the truth should never be a reason to lie or muddle through. But the cost-benefit calculus of most politicians tells them to say as little as possible, say it as cryptically as possible, and be prepared to “clarify” if caught red-handed. Unfortunately, many of our Church leaders are not exempt from the same temptation to count costs and avoid controversy. In stark contrast to this, Mark tells us that Jesus, when teaching his disciples, does the unthinkable: he speaks openly. He tells the truth. Just as it is. And even he is rebuked for his candid, even audacious disclosure. Telling the truth is difficult. Hearing it told is even harder. Therefore, with the prophet, Isaiah, let us proclaim: “The Lord God opens my ear that I may hear; [. . .] The Lord God is my help, therefore I am not disgraced; I have set my face like flint, knowing that I shall not be put to shame.” There is no shame in asking God for help. In fact, if we are to listen to God at all, we must deny the self and become lost in holy obedience.

Humility demands that we acknowledge our limitations, that we freely confess our shortcomings, especially those that we have wrongly cultivated as virtues. There is no shame in admitting that we do not always have every answer. There is no shame in saying clearly and openly that we do not understand every question. What is shameful is playing at being God with our ears all the while securely plugged against hearing the truth. When we Know That We Know and refuse to listen, shame consumes us. We are burnt up even if we believe that the fire consuming us is the flame of righteousness calling others to our cause. Quick to rebuke those who speak the truth, we deny ourselves—again and again—every chance to meet Truth Himself. Surely, this is a disgrace for a people who have vowed themselves to live and breath the truth who is Christ Jesus.

But look how easy it is to be deceived. Jesus asks his friends, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter says, “You are the Christ.” Immediately, Jesus begins revealing to them his fate, “that the Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and rise after three days.” Peter, the very one who only moments ago confesses the truth of who Jesus is, takes his teacher aside and rebukes him—for candor! We know how this scene ends. Jesus says to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan. You are thinking not as God does, but as men do.” Christ puts Peter to shame for his failure to listen to God's truth. Peter would deny God's plan for salvation before he allows his love for Jesus to be denied him by their enemies. His sin is not a lack of love for his teacher. His sin is to refuse self-denial. At a crucial moment in his apostolic training, Peter refuses to deny himself; he will not place Christ on the cross because doing so would take his beloved master from him. He cannot let Jesus go to Jerusalem. He cannot bear to let him be betrayed. He cannot tolerate what their enemies will do to his friend. For this betrayal, Jesus names his principal student and friend, “Satan.” Denier, Deceiver, Enemy.

Who among us now has not played “Satan” at some point along the Way, thinking as men do rather than as God does? Here we arrive at an apparent contradiction. Earlier I said that we fail to live and breath our baptismal vows when stubbornly refuse to listen to the truth and we play at being all-knowing gods. We bring shame upon ourselves even if we do not see it. Yet, Jesus rebukes Peter for not thinking as God does. How do we remain humble in the face of our limited, creaturely knowledge and at the same time think as God does? Obviously, we cannot think as God does because we are not God. In fact, God does not think at all. God is Thought; that is, God is not a being that thinks—He is Thinking. The best we can do is participate imperfectly in the One Who Thinks, participate to the degree that each of us is capable of doing so. This means that each of us—in varying degrees—sees and hears a silver of the Truth, just a portion of the whole. Thus, listening to one another is more than just a matter of practicality; it is a moral imperative. I dare say: it is a matter of our salvation, our work to grow in holiness.

The English theologian, Nicholas Lash,* writing about the classical debate between faith and reason, has proposed a provocative distinction: “There is no one thing called 'faith,' and no one thing called 'reason,' and the 'habits of the mind,' or mental practices [. . .] we do better not to speak, not of the relations between 'faith' and 'reason,' but rather of the relations between 'believing' and 'reasoning' [. . .].” At first glance, this distinction may seem too subtle, too gentle to make a difference in how we seek out the truth and speak it, if found. What is the difference between faith and believing, between reason and reasoning? To possess faith, to have reason implies that we hold a thing, something whole and wholly knowable. Believers, secure in their possession of faith, know what they believe. Those who hold reason as a foil against belief, also quite secure in their possession of imperturbable reason, know what they think. Believing and reasoning do not undermine faith and reason; rather, they extend the ability of the believer and the reasoner to search more deeply into uncharted territory. What we believe and what we think provide the grounding anchor, a weight to counter the pull of cyclical, intellectual tides. Lash goes on to note that some might see his distinction as permission to believe “this, that, or the other.” He writes, “On the contrary, I would wholeheartedly endorse the traditional insistence on the fidelity faith requires [. . .] even to the shedding of blood, in martyrdom.” Clearly, believing does not oppose the faith anymore than reasoning sets itself against reason. What we have is the difference between “having faith” and “working with faith,” the difference between “having reason” and “working with reason.”

Let Peter's rebuke of Jesus' freely spoken prophecy be our example. Can we say that Peter lacks faith? Is he lacking in reason? Surely, we can say that he is believing and reasoning even as he rebukes Jesus. He believes that Jesus is the promised Christ. After hearing Jesus describe his fate at the hands of his enemies, Peters reasons that it would be better for Jesus not to go to Jerusalem. And why shouldn't he reason so?! Peter loves Jesus and does not want to see him killed. If this is true, then why does Jesus rebuke Peter, naming him “Satan”? Peter is not listening; he's hearing, but he is not listening. Peter's faith has failed him in a crucial way: he has taken his fidelity to Jesus and made it an idol. From his faith, he has carved an idol of Christ that cannot do what Christ came to do. Horrified at the prospect of his seeing his faith upended, Peter moves to prop up his idol, thinking as men do and not as God does. Jesus teaches Peter and the other disciples how to move from Faith to Believing, from fidelity to to fidelity with: deny yourself. There is no other way to believing.

To deny oneself is to lose oneself in God. If I am truly lost in God, then there can be no “I” who is faithful to God. God is faithfulness. Wholly lost in Him, I am faithful with Him rather than to Him. Of course, being a limited creature, the degree to which I am lost in Him is measurable by my obedience, my eagerness to listen to Him and beg Him for clarity. Like Isaiah, I must pray for my ears to be opened. The more I shed Faith as a possession and embrace being faithful with God, the more I come to think as God does. Obedience's clarity rings purer in a soul lost in faithfulness with our Lord. Lash argues that fidelity with God, even to martyrdom, is a virtue Christians must cultivate. Jesus says, “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it.”

Jesus speaks freely to his disciples. Without fear, without calculation, he tells them the truth: he will be persecuted and killed for the salvation of the world. No idol of faith can accomplish this. Nor will reason heal our injuries. Only self-denial, the surrender of self to God, can bring us to the necessary fidelity, the sort and degree of believing that loses us wholly within God's own faithfulness to us. We may begin, as Peter does, being faithful to Christ. But if we will follow him to Jerusalem, we must come to be faithful with him. . .as he is faithful with us, right up to an agonizing death on a cross.

*Lash, Nicholas. “Thinking, Attending, Praying.” In Philosophers and God: At the Frontiers of Faith and Reason, ed. John Cornwell and Michael McGhee, Continuum, 2009, 39-49.

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