February 17, 2008
Edwards (Knox) United Church
Second Sunday of Lent
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The Rev. Dr. George Hermanson
At Presbytery on Tuesday, our guest was Bishop Mark MacDonald, who is the bishop for Aboriginal people. He made the point that the overwhelming desire of First Nation peoples was for us to repent of what is called the Doctrine of Discovery. This is the attitude of all colonizing behaviour, whether it is of a people or an individual. This is the attitude that there is nothing there until we see it or bring it. It is the view that our perception determines reality, that there is nothing objective that meets us. It is to see a people without their culture, to assume there is no culture until we bring it.
The drastic outcome of such a view is that it gives us permission to impose our perspective on the other. It has not only affected how we deal with cultures different from us, it has also allowed us to colonize the other. This is when we speak for others without really understanding their internal reality. Projection is another name for our attitude. It is to believe that the other is an empty reality. This allows us to use the ‘other’ for our own ends.
Not only do we see this attitude in our dealing with those different from us, we see it in our dealing with even those we love. We have seen this our dealing with indigenous cultures and it is the world view that allows us to treat the environment as empty space until we give it meaning.
While it is true we have learned from exploration and discovery, the problem is the idea of empty reality to which we give meaning. Our society has worked out of this world view, it is called dualism. This is seen in how discovery has moved from there is some reality that has intrinsic worth, from which we learn, to: we give meaning to the world. There is no external reality we learn from, there is no intrinsic inner reality in the other. It is to see the world only as objective, a machine, without subjective reality. It is to forget that things outside us also have a sense of self awareness.
We have split the physical from the spiritual. We think of them as two different and unrelated realms. This allows us to make one aspect of our reality, the spiritual or the physical, more important than the other. It gets worked out in phrases: "it is only sticks and stones that hurt, not words." For both hurt and leave a lasting impression on us. It has allowed us to split physical healing from spiritual healing.
This is not an new issue for it is the very issue that the Gospel of John is addressing in this story of Nicodemus.
There is an element of comedy in this story. The writer uses irony in the statement: “You are a teacher of Israel, and you don’t understand this?” in response about being born again. For one of the teachings of Judaism was the unity of body and spirit, that the true self is both spiritual and physical, and interplay between the two experiences is what we use to understand our world. You can almost see Jesus hitting his forehead, for he has stated an obvious teaching, and the Nicodemus plays dumb.
Of course the story teller has made Nicodemus a foil to make the point of the unity of the physical and the spiritual. John writes against a Greek philosophical tradition that has made dualism the way to think. He uses the same Greek philosophical method to create a new understanding. He does this by using images of light and dark, spiritual and physical, and being born again to suggest a bipolar way of thinking - that in God world and spirit are one. It is true we experience, in this unity, contrasting experiences of light and dark, of good and evil. However that does mean they are unrelated and competing forces at war with each other. Life has contrasts which add an enhancement of experience. This adds a vividness and novelty to our personal experience.
We hear a misreading of this light verse dark in religious thinking when it says this world is evil, or that there is a war of cultures, or the righteous one is over against infidel, the apostate. This world view allows the listener to impose a appropriate the voice of the other. We see this negative reading in the phrase “we do this for your own good.” To help the other means we have to listen them into speech. This means knowing what is at stake for the other and working from their perspective, using means of persuasion if we want the other to change their mind thus their behaviour.
What John is offering is a new way of seeing reality. In the being born again is to see in a new way. And it is not a once in life time event. We continuously need to change our perception. It marks a new way of life where we see that there is a reality that enlivens all of reality, and it is the novel influence of God in every nanosecond. It is a radical belief that the incarnation of God is found in our experience and in the things of this world. There is no dualism of spirit and physical, religion and secular, but there is a unity where we experience within our secular reality the aim of God.
In an issue of the Christian Century there is a discussion of religious paintings. Margaret Miles has found that before the 1500’s the nursing Madonna dominated the iconic images. Here God is symbolized as receiving nurture. As well it speaks of God’s love. The virgin’s breast is a symbol of God’s gift of love. This nurturing image shows God who cares for us like a mother cares for her baby. There is an element of excessiveness - of generosity of love - giving us all we need to live. And the images remind us that the spiritual, the aim of God, is found in very natural ways and human activities. It is an affirmation of the body, and the aim of God is found in very embodied ways.
In one painting of Da Vinci’s we see Jesus looking directly at us. Again a look of love and affirmation. All we need for life more abundant is given by God and we see this in Jesus.
John completes his point with the famous saying of God so loved this world. Now this is not blood sacrifice but to affirm that it is in this world we live God. The world is not condemned but is the home of God who is seeking its renewal. When John uses the phrase the world is rescued through Jesus, he is reaffirming the ongoing incarnation of God into physical reality. As Christians we can see this happening in the life and teachings of Jesus. Through him we have a window into the inner reality of life as sacred, the home of God.
Being born again is to see this inner reality to life - to see our world as holy earth. The earth is full of the beauty of God, and our job - our project - is see this inner reality and to work with it. And when we see this is the truth about life, we are energized to care for all around us. It is to see the world as full of meaning before we get there. It is to learn from others and honour their insights about this inner truth - that life is inspirited. We turn around and now treat the world, and those in it, as having something to teach us. Encountering this spiritual truth has the power to transform our thinking about the nature of life, to moves into solidarity with others, to join with others as our brothers and sisters, and thus to create a new reality - a new way thinking about life - we are in this together and we need one another to heal our broken unity.