The high priest rose up and all his companions, that is, the part of the Sadducees, and, filled with jealousy, laid hands upon the Apostles and put them in the public jail.Acts 5: 17
But whoever lives the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God.John 3: 21
Today’s story from Acts speaks of the motivations of those in power who persecuted the Apostles. As was true of the disciples themselves when they exhorted Jesus to stifle others who were healing in his name, the high priest and the Sadducees are driven to persecute others they come to see as rivals for religious authority and leadership out of jealousy.
A persistently troubling aspect of true Christianity, the structure of human personality, is its universality. As we read in today’s gospel passage from John, “But whoever lives the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God.” Our unconscious desire to be special, to stand as superior to others, is a controlling force in our lives. To even speak of being “common” is an insult for us. For us to preserve this delusion of grandeur requires that we keep others in their place. So, when they. in one way or another, seem to us to step out of the place we have designated for them, we become “filled with jealousy.”
To “live the truth” requires of us that we know and recognize our true place, not the place of our illusory self but who we are in God. Martin Buber once said to those seeking answers to their religious questions, “I do not know what ideas are.” Yesterday in a conversation with a friend, I mentioned a question that lurks beneath the surface for me. I wonder, when I find myself extremely impassioned about something, if my enthusiasm is out of a true conviction born of experience or merely for an idea. Am I impassioned because I want my idea to prevail or am I being in service to living the truth in light. Buber went on to say to the students who questioned him, “Whoever expects of me a doctrine . . . will invariably be disappointed.”
Jesus too had no doctrines to offer. As Buber, he spoke only of how we are to live in the truth. “If you make my word your home, you will indeed be my disciples. And you will learn the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” (John 8: 31-20) In the spiritual experience of Theodore James Ryken, the founder of the Xaverian Brothers, there is an inextricable link between the deflation of his ego, the destruction of his illusions about himself, and his turning toward God and falling in love with God. The etymology of the English word “believe” is to care or to love. To believe is to be in love. Why is it that we must be put in our place before we can “turn to God and fall in love”? It is because the “outer self,” which is made up of our own ideas and agenda for ourselves, others, and the world, must give way to our “inner self” that lives the truth of God’s love and way for ourselves, others, and the world. When we live in the truth we are without envy or jealousy because we are not in competition with anyone else. Our only concern is that we are living the truth of our own lives and calls.
In a famous passage from Book X of The Confessions, St.Augustine writes:
But what do I love when I love my God? Not the sweet melody of harmony and song; not the fragrance of flowers, perfumes, and spices; not manna or honey; not limbs such as the body delights to embrace. It is not these that I love when I love my God. And yet, when I love Him, it is true that I love a light of a certain kind, a voice, a perfume, a food, an embrace; but they are of the kind that I love in my inner self, when my soul is bathed in light that is not bound by space; when it listens to sound that never dies away; when it breathes fragrance that is not borne away on the wind; when it tastes food that is never consumed by the eating; when it clings to an embrace from which it is not severed by fulfillment of desire. This is what I love when I love my God. (highlight added)
Augustine raises directly the question of what we love when we love God. And he answers, we love everything, but in a different way, in the way of our “inner self.” When I love in my “outer self,” I cling out of the fear of loss. In my craving I can deplete the world and suffocate the personal others. I can use others for my ends and envy them when they do what I can’t. I can crave the light and heat of the sun to a degree where I deplete the earth’s resources and contaminate its air in demanding for myself its comfort at all times. My outer self lives in a continual, though often unconscious, fear of its own mortality and so attempts to alter reality in such a way that my craving for permanence can be satisfied. In short my “outer self” relates to the world in the mode of possession and control.
This outer self also creates gods of its own making in order to support its cravings and aversions. It likes or loves those who support its illusions. It hates or envies those who don’t. It devises gods that serve its own self-image rather than the God whose insistent call is to the truth. So, when Ryken suffers being put in his place, he recognizes the love of God for him in restoring him to the truth. That love, in turn, evokes in him a response of turning toward it, as the flower turns toward the sun. And, as he does so, he experiences the love, which he calls his falling in love but is actually God’s love of him.
In being brought low in this way, Ryken’s inner self is awakened. The “inner self,” says Augustine, is not driven and constituted by its fear of loss and death. It is a capacity to experience reality as eternal life: a light “not bound by space;” a “sound that never dies away;” an embrace that “is not severed by fulfillment of desire.” 1 John 4:18 tells us, “There is no fear in love. Perfect love drives out all fear.” The inner self is without fear because it knows itself as loved in the truth. The religious leaders of Jesus’ time, no more than every one of us, are driven by the jealousy of the “outer self” that is always threatened. This is the level of our personality from which we are most often operating. But, as Augustine reminds us, there is another which is always abiding in the truth and light of love.
At times religions externalize this universal and ongoing internal struggle. We used to speak of the “Church Militant” and countless times in history have destroyed persons and cultures who saw truth differently. This continues among religions and sects in our own time. Even within the Roman Church we now live a pitched battle between those who term themselves “conservatives” or “liberals.” Yet these battles are but manifestations of the pride, arrogance, fear, and jealousy of our “outer selves.” A great thinker like Martin Buber comes to a place in life where he realizes “I do not know what ideas are.” Our ideas are ephemeral. But the truth is eternal, not a truth that is the product of our ideas but the truth that is the love of the “inner self.”
Because we are “always and everywhere in formation,” God is always seeking to put us in our true place in the “ordinary, unspectacular flow of everyday life.” If we really let God in as God calls in this way, we shall discover that in the truth of who we are we are constantly and eternally loved, by a “common” love of all. The other is not a threat to us, because in our “inner selves” we are living the same love and the same life, manifesting itself uniquely and so inimitably in each of us. No less than the religious leaders who jail the Apostles, we are perennially trying to stifle manifestations of the truth, and so of God, that are counter to our ideas. As today’s gospel reminds us, “though the light has come into the world, people have shown that they prefer darkness to the light because their deeds were evil” (John 3: 19).
It is because we fear the truth that we prefer darkness to light. We create gods to serve ourselves, and from that place we shall always choose darkness. Yet, through all this, our “inner selves” live a life of presence and love to the eternal, that is we, even now as always, live the eternal life that Jesus promises. All we need to realize this light and love, even in our “outer selves,” is to accept the grace of being put in our place.
In old age, Buber was the perfect image of a sage, with twinkling eyes and a white beard. Mendes-Flohr opens his book by recounting a perhaps apocryphal story of children pointing at Buber in the street and calling him God. Late in life, when he was living in Jerusalem, he was visited by a stream of young kibbutz members seeking solutions to their religious quandaries. Buber responded by denying that he had anything to teach. “I do not know what ideas are,” he claimed. “Whoever expects of me a doctrine . . . will invariably be disappointed.” His words sound like the utterance of a Zen master contemplating a koan, and, indeed, Buber had long been fascinated by Taoism and Buddhism. The best way to understand Buber, ultimately, may be not as a thinker but as a seeker—a religious type religious type that became common in the twentieth century, as many Europeans and Americans turned to Eastern faiths or modern ideologies in their search for meaningAdam Kirsch, “Modernity, Faith, and Martin Buber”, The New Yorker, 5/6/19
In 1951, Buber delivered a series of three lectures in New York that served as a pendant to the Prague lectures he had given forty years earlier. In the intervening decades, the position of the Jews had changed more dramatically than in any comparable span of time in the previous two thousand years, and Buber had witnessed those changes at first hand. As a young man, he had sounded a call to rally the Jewish spirit; now he pondered whether Judaism had a future at all. “How is a life with God still possible in a time in which there is an Auschwitz?” he asked. “The estrangement has become too cruel, the hiddenness too deep.”
Yet Buber remained convinced that the human need for a relationship with God was indestructible. That is why he hoped to speak not just to Jews but to a whole broken world. For all of us, he wrote, the question we ask “in the innermost recesses of the heart” is the same: “Can you teach me to believe?”