07.13.2014 Preaching Text: “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.” (Romans 8:2)
On our trip to upstate New York this past week to see our older granddaughter perform in a musical, Linda read out loud something she’d recently found in the paper. It was from an advice column and had to do with perfectionism. A middle-schooler had written in, questioning the connection between perfectionism and underachievement.
The confluence of these two seemingly disparate phenomena often arises, the columnist explained, when little kids prove to be smart and good at things, garnering a lot of praise for it. Once in the habit of receiving such kudos, they may avoid other tasks which may not illicit this same kind of praise.
Anything that is challenging and requires great effort is sidestepped out of fear of failure, of not meeting expectations. Perfectionists, thus, tend to be only good at certain things they can do easily, and fault themselves as not very good at most other things.
Naturally enough, the solution to this problem involves building self-confidence, which is accomplished slowly and by means of hard work. Encouraged to try new and difficult things, perfectionists gradually make progress in these challenging tasks and eventually come to see themselves differently. They come to see themselves more objectively, as better than others at some things, but also less capable in certain other things.
As they achieve by dint of hard work and persistence, they develop a healthier sense of self, as not perfect (as is true of everybody) but also as capable of learning and achieving new things. Most importantly, they come to see themselves without the debilitating illusions of perfectionism.
In Romans, Paul talks about the ways of the “flesh” in contrast to the ways of the “Spirit.” Implied is a stark difference in the way we human beings see. The “natural” man or woman sees things in a distorted way, Paul argues, while those “in the spirit” see things more as God sees them. Thus Christians are better able to see themselves as God sees them, i.e. objectively.
This is not to be confused with the presumed objectivity of Christian fundamentalism (and its curious claim to “orthodoxy” and as sole possessor of the lost truths of the early church).
For one thing, the early church never took scripture literally, as does fundamentalism. Fundamentalism is instead an Enlightenment heresy which assumes that words (and reason) are objective. According to this way of thinking, the words on the page mean the same thing to everybody for the simple reason that interpretation is not at all involved.
This, of course, is absurd. Each of us interprets words, whether we realize it or not. And as for the Bible, there are no less than two completely different versions of the Garden of Eden story, one where human beings are created last, and the other where they’re created first! How does one reconcile that?
In his highly accessible and instructive Christian primer, To Begin at the Beginning, Martin Copenhaver advances this idea, “Even those who claim to be thoroughgoing literalists,” he writes, “apply their literalism selectively” (i.e. stoning homosexuals to death, planting two different kinds of seeds in the same field, wearing garments with two different kinds of yarn, etc.)
The words on the page, in other words, are interpreted differently, based on the disposition of the reader. And a reader “in the flesh,” to use Paul’s terminology, will necessarily interpret words one way, the “spiritual” reader another.
The concept is pretty simple. As we grow from childhood into adults, we change our perceptions of the world. As an infant, everything revolves around us. As we mature, we see ourselves more properly as part of a larger whole, one in which we have a limited but important role to play. Just as the young perfectionist learns to see him or herself more objectively, as possessing certain gifts while lacking others, we gain clarity as to the person God created us to be.
The same applies to our life in Christ. Without the Holy Spirit, we see things without the benefit or insight of God, the one who, after all, created us. The things to which we give ultimate importance, when viewed in the light of the divine, invariably prove far less compelling. With the aid of the Spirit, the cares and worries of this life are put in perspective as our approach to daily life is transformed and clarified.
The sermon title, Seeing the World Objectively, suggests a concept that flies in the face of much contemporary thinking. For according to it, nothing is objective, but purely subjective.
Thus, in reading the Bible, as with any text, we are encouraged to interpret it according to our own biases and proclivities. Christian faith, in contradistinction, asks that we allow the text (and the Spirit who animates it) to interpret us…that we might see the world as God sees it.
Back in the 90’s, a famous Yale religious scholar, Harold Bloom, wrote a book seeking to deconstruct the Bible in light of modern scholarship. Perhaps none too surprisingly, what he discovered was that the Jesus of the Bible looked exactly like what a late 20th century academic might look like.
In its review of the book, the Christian Century published a very clever cartoon that showed Bloom peering into an opened Bible. And what was staring back at him from the pages was none other than his own face, his own reflection!
The Bible, when understood properly, is meant less to reflect our own predispositions than to alter them, to accord more closely with how the divine wishes us and the world to be.
Take, for example, the Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” it reads, “that all men are created equal.”
This statement, as I see it, is not in any way self-evident. But it is true, even objectively so! After all, there have been times and places, both past and present, where this proposition has been roundly dismissed as anything but self-evident.
Only if we see the world the way God sees it, in the Spirit, does this statement become true! Only when we grow out of our “natural” state, and see human beings the way God sees us, can we grasp the simple truth that all men and women are created equal. Amen.