“For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they said, ‘He is possessed by a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking and they said, ‘Look, he is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is vindicated by her works.”Matthew 11:18-19
Most of us are increasingly aware of the perilous political times in which we live. At least for me, the most frightening aspect of our current situation is the devaluing of truth and of any possibility of common understanding. Be it the shock that will face many British voters when they discover that their highly desired break from the European Union will not mean a return to the glories of the empire or the stark realization that will occur in the United States when our refusal to prioritize the future of our planet over our own short term comfort wreaks its havoc on the earth, we shall in time learn to our dismay that “wisdom is vindicated by her works.” In the meantime, however, we find ourselves in a place where we prefer our own illusions to a life of responsibility to and for the truth.
Last night I heard of a recent poll result that indicated that 53% of Republicans who were polled said that Donald Trump was a greater president than Abraham Lincoln. A person who suffers from primary narcissism and who repeatedly lies is considered by over half the members of his political party to be a better president than the one who in his first inaugural address, hoping from the depths of his heart that his country could avoid the impending disaster of civil war, closed by pleading:
I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature
The point here is not a politically partisan but rather an epistemological one. The problem we face in regard to the truth of things is not a new one. I recall as a boy, over 60 years ago, feeling troubled by what seemed to me the overvaluing of personal opinion in American culture. As time has passed, it has become only more and more the case that we have ceased to value reality, the truth of things over our own very limited perception. In our time of mass media, we have exacerbated the problem by implying, in our “two party system,” that there are always but two conflicting views of any social issue. And so we do not dialogue in a shared attempt to discover what is true but rather debate until one point of view overpowers the other. What is left in the dust is the actual truth of things.
This dilemma springs, of course, out of our basic human arrogance. “We played the flute for you but you did not dance; we sang a dirge but you did not mourn.” Jesus says these are the words of “children in the marketplace.” So they are truly today a description of our own childishness. But, says, Jesus, “wisdom is vindicated by her works.” I sometimes wonder what our reckoning will look like. So far, it appears to be a reckoning, as so often, that is afflicting the poor and most vulnerable of our society and our planet. Yet, we have also begun to see the judgment and vindication of wisdom in the increasing nightmare that is our social and political life. The fuel of our politics is largely anger. As Lincoln warned in 1861: “Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection.” There is short term political profit in arousing anger, but it is at the cost of the “bonds of affection” that are the only means to our once again hearing “the chorus of the Union.”
To live, in my own case unexpectedly, into the later years of life is to realize that it is difficult for us to become disciples of the Way, of God’s truth. As Isaiah says in today’s passage, “I, the Lord, your God, teach you what is for your good, and lead you on the way you should go.” (Isaiah 48:17) When young we presume that what we perceive is reality and how we perceive is objectively the only way to see. But time teaches us that neither of these is true. We are always creating alternative realities in order to serve what we want and what we need things to be. When the truth of life is hard, we attempt to alter that truth to spare ourselves the difficulty. There remains always in us something of the child who believes, in closing his or her eyes, that what she or he does not see is not there. In our personal and our shared lives, the stories we tell are often quite different from the truth.
But, God’s will for us, and so God’s call to us can only come out of the truth of things. The way we should go is the way of truth. Everything we do in the world of our own imaginations, in unreality, is a waste of our time, our effort, and our lives. So the Pharisees look at John the Baptist and refuse to see the call he is mediating to them, because they are caught up in their own story about how crazy he is. They are unable to recognize the truth of Jesus because they have determined he is “ a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.” In the past couple of days, and I say this with great shame, the president of our country attacked on Twitter (in effect cyber bullied) the heroic young woman, Greta Thunberg who has, with great courage and conviction, committed herself to perhaps the greatest call of our time, to save our planet from our own greed and selfishness for the generations to follow. He did this out of envy, as Greta had just been named Time’s person of the year.
When we act out of our own illusions rather than out of the reality of the situation, we wreak harm and havoc. So, the true witnesses of God, Jesus and John the Baptist, are put to death. At the very time that it is imperative that we radically reduce greenhouse emissions, they have reached an all time high. As long as we place our own pride form, our own false self, at the center of our concern, we shall remain unable to see the truth. Lincoln had great personal and family suffering. Yet, his own personal hurt did not obscure his attending to those “mystic chords of memory” that swelled “the chorus of the union,” and the very present obstacles to that chorus. What made Lincoln great was his awareness of his deepest identity as a servant of the Way, of the truth of things.
Be it in regard to our own souls or the world into which we have been sent, we are called to learn the way of servanthood, of obedience to the way that the Lord is teaching us. Without proper and truthful appraisal of our field of formation, of the world as it is, we cannot receive that teaching, we cannot know the Way. At every moment, in our personal lives and in our shared lives, God is teaching us through the persons, events, and things that make up our world. Greta Thunberg’s passion is not in need of anger management. Her anger is the truthful and real response to our negligence and our selfishness. It is interesting that the president tells her to “go to a movie.” He is saying far more than he realizes. Stop looking at the reality of the world, he is saying, and enter, with him, the world of narcissistic fantasy. Lincoln was right. There are, in truth, better angels of our nature. But Lincoln knows this because he recognizes the illusion and the danger of our lesser angels.
Most of us as children were taught that we were not to lie. Even if the truth were bad, our parents would tell us, it is better to admit it, to face it, rather than to lie about it. This early formation directive lies at the heart of the spiritual journey. Conversion, reformation, and transformation are only possible when we admit the truth. This is the case personally, socially, and politically. it is not up to us to decide what is true and what is not. It is not a matter of personal or group opinion. It is the only way to recognize and realize “the wisdom of God.” That wisdom will eventually show itself in love and in glory. That glory, however, may manifest itself to us in the form of love or wrath (which are actually both love).
In her speech before the United Nations Climate Conference, Greta Thunberg told the assembled group of international leaders:
The biggest danger is not inaction. The real danger is when politicians and CEOs are making it look like real action is happening, when in fact almost nothing is being done, apart from clever accounting and creative PR.
My mother spent her last several years in a nursing home. I spent a good bit of time there and over that time it became evident who among the aides was truly caring for my mother and who among them wanted me to see them as caring. That is there were those who were doing real caring and those who were affecting being caring. So it is in life at the micro and macro levels. There are those who do what they can, however difficult and insurmountable seem the difficulties, and there are those who waste time and energy trying to appear like they are doing something but never doing what the reality of the situation is calling for. To do the latter means to act in love. It is to give up one’s life for the world rather than to use the world to bolster one’s own self-justifying illusions.
At the moment of his first inaugural, Abraham Lincoln was looking into the abyss that became the horror of the American Civil War. As Psalm 18:37 describes: “I pursued my enemies and overtook them; I did not turn back till they were destroyed.” In the face of the Way of the Lord for him, Lincoln did not turn back but gave what he had in response to God’s call. Greta Thunberg, as young as she is, is not going to “go to the movies and chill.” They know, as did John the Baptist and Jesus, that they are responsible to God for their lives. That responsibility is at the same time a responsibility to the world. Who we are to be for the world, the Lord promises to teach us. It is our preference for our own illusions, it is our own self-centeredness that clouds our vision of that teaching. The courage to seek and to find the truth is how we come to know that way.
The Tao that can be told
Is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named
is not the eternal Name.
The unnamable is the eternally real.
Naming is the origin
of all particular things.
Free from desire, you realize the mystery.
Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations.
Yet mystery and manifestations
arise from the same source.
This source is called darkness.
Darkness within darkness.
The gateway to all understanding.
Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, I, trans. Stephen Mitchell