Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Stability in a World Out of Control

What follows is a reflection I have submitted to the local newspaper. I have no idea whether they will print it.

It seems the world is out of control. We find ourselves living days of ever mounting anxiety as we read of terrorists, wars, diseases, economic panics, and worries that the earth itself faces ecological disaster. When we look to our society, it seems rudderless. Everywhere there is the sense that institutions, long the bulwarks of order and stability, are failing. The buzzwords of the day are ‘collapse’, ‘decline’, ‘uncertainty’ and ‘fear’. It is not just that we have come to fear the stranger; we seem to have become strangers to ourselves.

Our fears are not groundless. We have gloried in our technological and societal accomplishments and, as if embracing Wittgenstein’s image of casting down the ladder, our society has turned away from all the old ‘superstitions’ and ‘ignorant ways’ of history. Instead, we attempt to build a new society based on vague egalitarian principles. Science, which in its essence is no more than an empirical process to advance a technological end, has come to supplant the roles of ethics, aesthetics, metaphysics and theology. Because these disciplines refuse to be restricted to the vocabulary of Science, they are charged with ‘meaninglessness’ rather than exposing the limitations of scientific methodology. And yet, we sense the gnawing feeling that the promise of Science to provide us all the answers is itself empty and lifeless.

“Trust ye not in princes, in the sons of men, in whom there is no salvation. His spirit shall go forth, and he shall return unto his earth. In that day all his thoughts shall perish.” (Psalm 145 LXX)
The Psalms have always been essential to Jewish and Christian worship and reflection. In these ancient hymns we discover not just truths about God but truths about ourselves. As we reflect on our current fears and the condition of our society and world, the Psalter uncovers a common thread in our humanity that remains stable no matter what changes we face socially or technologically. I discover that the fears and hopes I experience today are actually the same as those experienced by the shepherd tending his sheep four thousand years ago. The vanity, humility, pettiness, joy, repentance and anxiety of human existence –it is no different today than it has ever been.

Of course, the Psalms address our humanity in the context of adoration of God. This itself reveals that our humanity in its fullness is discovered only in relationship with God. In the fifth century, Blessed Augustine wrote of this relationship: “Thou hast formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee.” (Confessions I.1) Our worship of God, our experience of Divine Love, a Love that is unearned, generous and life-giving, awakens within us a true understanding of who we are. The shackles of position, family, class, race, gender, and circumstance melt away in the integration of our personhood. We discover that we have infinite worth because we are loved by God; that we possess a dignity that cannot be lessened by loss of social standing or economic crash. This dignity gives us new eyes to see those around us in a new spirit. It is not what one possesses that makes one worthy, it is who one is. And we, transfigured by the love of God that we experience, cannot fail to see others as also beloved of God and therefore also possessing infinite dignity.

Yes, there are many reasons to fear in today’s world, yet there is also hope. That hope is in God and in worship. In the Byzantine Christian Tradition, changeless worship comforts and enlightens while allowing participants to turn aside from the false-self imposed by society and live in the true personhood of Divine Grace. Ancient rituals become vehicles of self-realization and transcendence. Hymns whose melodies are from another time speak to the heart in a language contemporary music cannot match.

Indeed, the worshiper not only finds a center in his/her own life, but also a link to the thread of continuity that unites all humanity throughout history. Unlimited potential is unleashed in a fountain of love and solidarity with others that refuses to be stifled by ‘modern’ definitions. Eastern Christians come to truly experience Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today and forever, and in that encounter discover themselves. It is in that experience and discovery that doubt is transformed into hope fear is resolved into peace.

As we look to the future with all its uncertainties and anxieties, we need not fear. The same God who walked with the shepherd boy four thousand years ago is here for us today. Spend some time with him today and allow yourself to be amazed that in meeting him you will also discover yourself.

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