RonRolheiser,OMI

Close the Distance not the Gate

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Nobel-prizing winning author, Toni Morrison, assessing the times, asks this question: “Why should we want to know a stranger when it is easier to estrange another? Why should we want to close the distance when we can close the gate?” Except this isn’t a question, it’s a judgment.

It’s a negative judgment on both our society and our churches. Where are our hearts really at? Are we trying more to close the distance between us and what’s foreign, or are we into closing gates to keep strangers estranged?

In fairness, it might be pointed out that this has always been a struggle. There hasn’t been a golden age within which people wholeheartedly welcomed the stranger. There have been golden individuals and even golden communities who were welcoming, but never society or church as a whole.

Much as this issue is so front and center in our politics today, as countries everywhere struggle with their immigration policies and with what to do with millions of refugees and migrants wanting to enter their country, I want to take Morrison’s challenge, to close the distance rather than close the gate, to our churches: Are we inviting in the stranger? Or, are we content to let the estranged remain outside?

There is a challenging motif within Jesus’ parable of the over-generous vineyard owner which can easily be missed because of the overall lesson within the story.  It concerns the question that the vineyard owner asks the last group of workers, those who will work for only one hour. Unlike the first group, he doesn’t ask them: “Do you want to work in my vineyard?” Rather he asks them: “Why aren’t you working?” Their answer: “Because no one has hired us!” Notice they don’t answer by saying that their non-employment is because they are lazy, incompetent, or disinterested. Neither does the vineyard owner’s question imply that. They aren’t working simply because no one has given them the invitation to work!

Sadly, I believe this is the case for so many people who are seemingly cold or indifferent to religion and our churches. Nobody has invited them in! And that was true too at the time of Jesus. Whole groups of people were seen as being indifferent and hostile to religion and were deemed simply as sinners. This included prostitutes, tax collectors, foreigners, and criminals. Jesus invited them in and many of them responded with a sincerity, contrition, and devotion that shamed those who considered themselves true believers.  For the so-called sinners, all that stood between them and entry into the kingdom was a genuine invitation.

Why aren’t you practicing a faith? No one has invited us! 

Just in my own, admittedly limited, pastoral experience, I have seen a number of individuals who from childhood to early or late mid-life were indifferent to, and even somewhat paranoid about, religion and church. It was a world from which they had always felt excluded. But, thanks to some gracious person or fortunate circumstance, at a moment, they felt invited in and they gave themselves over to their new religious family with a disarming warmth, fervor, and gratitude, often taking a fierce pride in their new identity.  Witnessing this several times, I now understand why the prostitutes and tax collectors, more than the church people at the time, believed in Jesus. He was the first religious person to truly invite them in.

Sadly, too, there’s a reverse side to this is where, all too often, in all religious sincerity, we not only don’t invite certain others in, we positively close the gates on them. We see that, for example, a number of times in the Gospels where those around Jesus block others from having access to him, as is the case in that rather colorful story where some people are trying to bring a paralytic to Jesus but are blocked by the crowds surrounding him and consequently have to make a hole in the roof in order to lower the paralytic into Jesus’ presence.

Too frequently, unknowingly, sincerely, but blindly, we are that crowd around Jesus, blocking access to him by our presence. This is an occupational danger especially for all of us who are in ministry. We so easily, in all sincerity, in the name of Christ, in the name of orthodox theology, and in the name of sound pastoral practice set ourselves up as gatekeepers, as guardians of our churches, through whom others must pass in order to have access to God. We need to more clearly remember that Christ is the gatekeeper, and the only gatekeeper, and we need to refresh ourselves on what that means by looking at why Jesus chased the moneychangers out of the temple in John’s Gospel.  They, the moneychangers, had set themselves up as a medium through which people has to pass in order to offer workshop to God. Jesus would have none of it.

Our mission as disciples of Jesus is not to be gatekeepers. We need instead to work at closing the distance rather than closing the gate.

Language as Opening or Closing our Minds

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Thirty years ago, the American Educator, Allan Bloom, wrote a book entitled, The Closing of the American Mind. This was his thesis:  In our secularized world today our language is becoming ever-more empirical, one-dimensional, and devoid of depth and this is closing our minds by stripping us of the deeper meanings inside our own experience.  For Bloom, how we name an experience determines to a large extent its meaning.

Twenty years earlier, in rather provocative essay, The Triumph of the Therapeutic, Philip Rieff had already suggested something similar. For Rieff, we live our lives under a certain “symbolic hedge”, namely, a language and set of symbols within which we interpret our experience.  And that hedge can be high or low and consequently so too will be the meaning we derive from any experience. Experience can be rich or shallow, depending on the language by which we interpret it.

Take this example: A man has a backache and sees his doctor. The doctor tells him that he’s suffering from arthritis. This brings the man some initial calm. But he isn’t satisfied and sees a psychologist. The psychologist tells him that his symptoms are not just physical but that he is also suffering from mid-life crisis. This names his pain at a deeper level and affords him a richer understanding of what he is undergoing. But he’s still dissatisfied and sees a spiritual director. The spiritual director, while not denying him arthritis and mid-life crisis, tells him that he should understand this pain as his Gethsemane, as his cross to carry.

Notice all three diagnoses speak of the same pain but that each places that pain under a different symbolic hedge. Language speaks at different levels and only a certain language speaks at the level of the soul. Recently we have been helped to understand this through the work of Carl Jung and a number of his disciples, notably James Hillman and Thomas Moore, who have helped us to understand more explicitly the language of the soul and how that language uncovers deep archetypes within us.

We see the language of soul, among other places, in some of our great myths and fairy tales, many of them centuries old. Their seeming simplicity can fool you. They may be simple, but they’re not simplistic. To offer one example, the story of Cinderella: The first thing to notice in this story is that the name, Cinderella, is not a real name but a composite of two words: Cinder, meaning ashes; and Puella, meaning the eternal girl. This is not a simple fairy tale about a lonely, beaten-down young girl. It’s a myth that highlights a deep structure within the human soul, namely, that before our souls are ready to wear the glass slipper, be the belle of the ball, to marry the prince, and to live happily ever after we must first spend some necessary time sitting in the ashes, suffering humiliation, and being purified by a time in the dust.

Notice how this story speaks in its own way of our spirituality of “lent”, a season of penance, wherein we mark ourselves with ashes in order to enter a desert of our own making.

Cinderella is a story that shines a tiny light into the depth of our souls. Many of our famous myths do that, though nothing shines a light into the soul as deeply as does scripture, the bible. Its language and symbols name our experience in a way that both honors the soul and helps us plumb the genuine depth inside our experiences.

For example: We can be confused, or we can be inside the belly of the whale.  We can be helpless before an addiction, or we can be possessed by a demon. We can vacillate in our prayer lives between fervor and dark nights, or we can vacillate between being with Jesus ‘in Galilee’ or with him in ‘Jerusalem’. We can be paralyzed as we stand before a globalization that’s overwhelming, or we can be standing with Jesus on the borders of Samaria in a first conversation with a Syro-Phoenician woman.  We can be struggling with fidelity and with keeping our commitments in relationships, or we can be standing with Joshua before God, receiving instructions to kill off the Canaanites if we are to sustain ourselves in the Promised Land.  We can be suffering from arthritis, or we can be sweating blood in the garden of Gethsemane.

The language we use to understand an experience make a huge, huge difference in what that experience means to us.  In The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom uses a rather earthy, but highly illustrative, example to explain this. He quotes Plato who tells us that during their breaks his students sit around and tell wonderful stories about the meaning of their immortal longings. My students, Bloom laments, sit around during their breaks and tell stories about being horny.

We are losing the language of the soul and we are poorer for it.

Healthy and Unhealthy Fear of God

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As a theologian, priest, and preacher, I often get asked: “Why isn’t the church preaching more fear of God anymore? Why aren’t we preaching more about the dangers of going to hell? Why aren’t we preaching more about God’s anger and hellfire?”

It’s not hard to answer that. We aren’t preaching a lot about fear because to do so, unless we are extremely careful in our message, is simply wrong. Admittedly fear can cause people to change their behavior, but so can intimidation and brainwashing. Just because something is effective doesn’t mean it is right. Fear of God may only be preached within a context of love.

Scripture itself seemingly gives us a mixed message: On the one hand, it tells us that “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”, even as it tells us that virtually every time God appears in human history, the first words from God are always: “Don’t be afraid!” That phase, coming from the mouth of God or from the mouth of God’s messenger, appears more than 300 times in scripture. The first words we will hear every time God appears in our lives are: “Don’t be afraid!” So we must be careful when we preach fear of God. Fear of punishment is not the real message we hear when God enters our lives.

Then how is fear of God the beginning of wisdom? In our relationship with God, just as in our relationships with each other, there are both healthy and unhealthy fears.  What’s a healthy fear?

Healthy fear is love’s fear: When we love someone our love will contain a number of healthy fears, a number of areas within which we will be healthily cautious and reticent:  We will fear being disrespectful, fear despoiling the gift, fear being selfish, fear being irreverent. All healthy love contains the fear of not letting the other person be fully free. Reverence, awe, and respect are a form of fear. But that kind of fear is not to be confused with being frightened, intimidated, or dreading some kind of punishment. Metaphorically, love’s fear is the fear that God challenges Moses with before the burning bush: Take off your shoes because the ground you are standing on is holy ground!

How are we to understand fear of God as the beginning of wisdomWe are wise and on the right path when we stand before the mystery of God (and of love) with our shoes off, namely, in reverence, in awe, in respect, in unknowing, without undue pride, humble before an infinity that dwarfs us, and open to let that great mystery shape us for its own eternal purposes. But that is far different, almost the antithesis, of the fear we experience when we are frightened of someone or something that threatens us because the person or thing is perceived as being mercilessly exacting or as being arbitrary and punitive.

There is too a healthy fear of God that’s felt in our fear of violating what’s good, true, and beautiful in this world. Some religions call this a fear before the “law of karma”.  Jesus, for his part, invites us to this kind of holy fear when he warns us that the measure we measure out is the measure that will be given back to us. There’s a moral structure inherent in the universe, within life, and within each of us. Everything has a moral contour that needs to be respected. It’s healthy to be afraid of violating any goodness, truth, or beauty.

We need to preach this kind of healthy fear rather than that God needs to be feared because of the punishment he might eventually deal out in some legalistic and exacting fashion.  Whenever we preach this kind of fear, of a God who deals out hellfire, we are almost always also preaching a God who isn’t very intelligent, compassionate, understanding, or forgiving. A God who is to be feared for his punitive threats is a God with whom we will never find a warm intimacy. Threat has no place within love, except if it is a holy fear of doing something that will disrespect and despoil. To preach hellfire can be effective as a tactic to help change behavior, but it is wrong in terms of the Gospel.

Fear is a gift. It is also one of the deepest, life-preserving instincts within you. Without fear, you won’t live very long. But fear is a complex, multi-faced phenomenon.  Some fears help you stay alive, while others deform and imprison you. There are things in life that you need to fear. A playground bully or the arbitrary tyrant can kill you, even if they are all wrong.  Lots of things can kill you, and they merit fear.

But God is not one of those things. God is neither a playground bully nor an arbitrary tyrant. God is love and a perpetual invitation to intimacy. There is a lot to be feared in this, but nothing of which to be afraid.