By The Reverend H. Frederick Gough, KSMA
“While the people pressed upon Him to hear the word of God…”
Palestine – Judea and the Galilee, was among the least stable provinces of the Roman Empire. Despite Roman indulgence of the eccentricities of Jewish custom and religion, the relationship was never comfortable. There was almost always a revolt going on. The people were constantly on watch for someone to take charge, to assume responsibility, to take command and throw off the Roman yoke.
We are bombarded these days by various speculations about the mood of the nation as reflected in various opinion polls. It seems, according to the information some folks have assimilated, that this country may be ripe for the appearance on the scene of a strongman, perhaps even a dictator.
These articles strike a chord with me because I’ve felt a bit of concern building up in myself over the last few years about the state of the nation, and certainly of the world. This frustration seems to culminate in the realization that to some questions no answer, not even a solution difficult of application, seems to be in sight.
It is tempting to wish for a return to the good ol’ days as suggested by the popularity of nostalgia movies and TV shows. But it is difficult to filter the good ol’ days from a miasma of history which recalls World Wars I and II, Korea, Vietnam, the racial upheaval, the Great Depression, the War on Terror and assorted other times of trial.
It becomes tempting then, to find someone who seems to represent our views and to vest him or her, often on an emergency basis, with absolute power. The Romans did so, and, among others, produced Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, a great man by any standard, the model of the philosopher king. Although a fervent persecutor of Christians, he was in turn, succeeded by Commodus, charitably portrayed in the popular movie “The Gladiator”, a man of such dissolute character and action that by comparison the emperor Nero looked like St. Francis of Assisi.
There was even a serious movement to make George Washington king of America, and of course Lenin, Hitler, Mao Zedong, and more recently, Saddam Hussein and Vladimir Putin, are standout examples of men who brought order from chaos by the assumption of personal power in troubled times. There does not appear to be much supporting evidence that the lives of people are greatly eased by this kind of change, but rather that they trade one set of problems for another.
This discussion has evolved from the feeling of 61% of Americans according to a Harris poll, that “what they think doesn’t count much anymore,” 51% feeling that “nobody in government cares what happens to them, startling statistics for a democracy, from assorted other data, and from my own discomfort with the world scene.
But what causes that kind of discomfort? What fuels the fires of frustration that move people to look backward in history for comfort, or to ignore history altogether? What is missing from life that leaves us groping for answers to the ultimate questions of purpose, of meaning?
It would be easy to say religion and give a sort of trite essay about what religion is, and fade back into the chancel, but that would but fuel the fires of cynicism a bit more. Simply put, religion is the asking of ultimate questions, and listening for answers, and I don’t think that’s what’s missing in most lives today. Maybe the listening part is sometimes… But we are certainly a culture of questioners. Dominated, as we seem to be, by the drive of scientific inquiry we have pushed the boundaries of our understanding, well beyond the fringes of our solar system.
Aided by our technical knowledge, we have reached beyond Neptune and Uranus and are touching and probing interstellar space. And all that we touch – we change – we transform to our use or purpose. But as we change the universe, we change ourselves. We find ourselves transformed, if you will, into instruments, tools for change. Thus, people become merely assets.
But if we ask “Why?”, “To what purpose?”, science can answer only with silence. This suggests to me, that there is another epistemology, another way of knowing. We know, for example, of 5 senses and speculate about a 6th. Suppose there is a 7th or 8th sense. Perhaps it is one of these that our culture has neglected – an entire realm of knowing whose surface and ways we have barely scratched, if at all, and certainly have not pursued, grasped, and used as assiduously as we have science.
Some might call it knowledge by faith, some – revealed knowledge. Tillich calls it the dimension of depth. By means of a sort of reverse logic, I call it “vision”. Vision is, for me, the continual awareness of a transcendental power, a power beyond our ability forever totally to know or to harness, the power which created the heavens, and spread them out; who gave shape to the earth and what comes from it; who gave breath to its people and life to the creatures that move in it. Most of us grasp that much, understand and grasp that gift of life, but we tend sometimes to lose sight of its purpose if indeed we ever knew, and in that loss – is the fullness of our humanity.
Someone once said that cows are much better at being cows than we are at being people. There is a deal of truth in that. In order to know our purpose, to know what full humanity really is, we must look beyond ourselves, beyond what we deduce or adduce on our own, or else we simply replicate our own flaws. We must look to a transcendental power – to God and to the example he has given us in his Son.
Here is a challenge beyond all the challenges of science. Here is vision – the opening of the eyes of the blind, the freedom from the darkness of the dungeon; the restoration that Isaiah talked about of humanity to humankind, that we may aspire to being as good at being people as cows are at being cows. Then shall we see the Almighty’s example – not a fearsome warrior, not the man on horseback, full of mighty words loudly spoken, sword in hand, but the man of peace, quiet as sunshine and more full of light. For him, for this vision of God’s love manifested to us again and again in the Epiphany season.
Thanks be to God!