Thursday, April 18, 2013

Imago Dei Will Win

Sometimes it seems like the world is going to hell.
There’s a bunch of religious fanatics in Iran intent on making a nuclear weapon, and I can’t imagine anything worse than a religious fanatic with a nuke.  Unless it’s an atheist with a nuke, which is what it seems we have in North Korea.   Newtown, Connecticut still haunts us, as does Columbine, 9-11, and Oklahoma City.  And now Boston.  It’s easy to give up thinking that things will get better when they just seem to be getting worse.  
It’s also in times like these that we get pushed—or we push ourselves—toward extreme views.  One is that the total depravity of humanity has been irrefutable proven once more.  Or, at least, that there are some among us who are totally depraved.  It’s hard to argue against that, isn’t it?  Whoever did this has to be a despicable person, someone so warped and degraded as to be sub-human and unworthy of anything but death—and we’d even waive the injunction against cruel and unusual.
But then we have to be reminded that the line between good and evil doesn’t run between people but runs straight through the heart of each person.  Few people renounce all violence—we all have conditions in which we believe that killing another person is justified, whether in self-defense, in defense of our families, of the unborn, of country or creed, or whatever.  And though we have laws governing those conditions, we don’t all agree with those laws.  One person’s justifiable killing is another person’s unjustifiable killing.  Everyone who commits violence feels justified in doing so, even if only in the heat of the moment.  Don’t think for a moment that the Boston bomber(s) said to himself, “I'm an evil person, so I guess I need to go do something evil.”  No, if we catch the person  and if we hear his story, he will somehow justify it.  He will in his own mind have a cause or a reason that he felt justified an act of violence.  We won’t agree with him, and we will find his reasoning depraved, but unless you are Amish or Mennonites or Quakers or Benedictine monks who totally renounce all violence, most of us have a definition of justifiable violence that others would find depraved.
But if the line between good and evil runs through the heart of every human, that means that there is justifiable goodness in each person as well.  We are not totally depraved, just partially.  The image and likeness of God with which we were created manifests itself in people as well.  Comedian Patton Oswalt wrote about this in a Facebook posting that has become popular in the aftermath of the bombings.  He pointed out that when the bombs went off, many people understandably ran away, but there were many people whose first reaction was to run toward the explosions, toward the victims.  They did so without thinking, in the heat of the moment if you will, just reacting.  If people are capable of violence  in the heat of the moment, they are also capable of great goodness and self-sacrifice in the heat of the moment.  I should point out that we don't know what religion these people were, so we cant’ say it was a Christian reaction or Buddhist reaction or Jewish or whatever.  It was, in fact, a human reaction, but one born of the image and likeness of God, for who can doubt that God was immediately with the victims as well?
None of us are totally depraved, and while there are those among us who seem to dwell in the depravity side of the human heart, there are many who allow the God image-and-likeness to take up more space, crowding the depravity into a corner.  I’d like to think that number is growing, but on days like Monday it’s easy to think it’s not—until, once again, you look at the people running toward the explosions.
The Bible tells us that with the Incarnation of Christ, culminating in the cross, depravity lost.  There are some who say that we are in a war against evil, but that war is over, and evil lost.  Depravity still fights, but it loses ground every time we put our swords down and run toward the victims.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

More or Less

      You have probably seen the series of commercials for a wireless carrier in which a man asks a group of kids different questions.  “Which is better, faster or slower?”  “Which is better, bigger or smaller?”  “Is saving money better than not saving money?”  And then the kids give funny responses.  One of the commercials has the man asking the kids, “Which is better, more or less?”  And a little girl goes on to explain, somewhat confusingly, that more is better than less.  (That’s not the best of the commercials, just the one that helps me make a point.  The best is the “Hold on, I’m watching this,” one.  I think he is just waiting to see if the kid is going to pass out or maybe vomit from waving his head and his hand around so much.  But anyway.)  More is always better than less, isn’t it?  That is obvious, and the logical extension is that having everything is better than having less than everything.  Of course, that sounds greedy so no one ever admits to that, but there is no end to “more” until you get to everything, so whether we are conscious of it or not, accepting that more is better than less means that we are each seeking everything.  We want it all.  We may be satisfied with less, but we want it all.
That’s embodied in the archetypal story of Adam and Eve.  God gave them everything, save one thing: they couldn’t eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  They could look at it, sit under it, even climb it if so inclined, but they weren’t supposed to eat its fruit.
So they had less.  Sure, that’s the half-empty way of saying it, but that’s how we tend to look at less.  They had less, so they wanted more.  They wanted everything, but found that the cost of having everything is losing the one thing that really matters—their community of three, God, Man, Woman, all in perfect peace.  And so they turned on each other.  “The Woman you gave to be with me, she gave it to me, and I ate.”
What good is it to have everything if you lose the one thing?  If you have everything but the one thing, you have nothing.  Ironic, isn’t it?
Thomas Aquinas said that every choice is also a renunciation.  If I marry one person, I cannot marry anyone else; if I live in one place, I cannot live anywhere else; if I choose a certain career, that excludes many other careers; if I have this, then I cannot have that. The list could go on indefinitely. To choose one thing is to renounce others. That's the nature of choice.
Every choice is also a renunciation, and that includes the choice to be a follower of Jesus.  To be a follower of Jesus means that you have to renounce lots of other things—not just sinful, destructive things, but a lot of good things as well.  And we don’t really like that.  We look to Jesus’ promise to give us abundant lives and we think that means that we’ll be saved from all the bad, destructive things in our lives so that we can enjoy all the good things in life as well.  What else could “abundant” mean?
Jesus gives us a different kind of answer.  He once told a parable about a pearl merchant who found the most precious pearl of all, and went and sold everything in order to purchase it.  He sold everything in order to have one thing.
Last time I looked, “one” is less than “everything.”
When is less better than more?  When it is the One Thing.  The One Thing is better than Everything.
And that is Jesus’ definition of abundance.  Not, as we define it, having a lot of things, but having the only thing that matters.  The One Thing.
What is that Pearl of Great Price, that One Thing?  Jesus said it is the Kingdom of God.  You can have everything, but if you aren’t in the community of God’s eternal kingdom, you don’t have anything.
And if you have the One Thing, you don't need Anything else.