01.17.2016 Preaching Text: “The nations shall see your vindication, and all the kings your glory…” (Isaiah 62:2)
Today’s reading from Isaiah is one I’ve heard countless times. It’s a celebratory passage, one that heralds a wayward Israel’s impending return to its homeland after years in Babylonian Captivity.
One passage really struck, though. In and of itself, I suppose, it’s pretty innocuous, a passage easily glossed over as so much biblical hyperbole: “The nations shall see your vindication,” verse 2 announces, “and all the kings your glory…”
In the next verse the prophet adds to the effect, “You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of your God…”
What is otherwise easily glossed over is the underlying theological assumption that through Israel (starting with Abraham) the entire world would be saved, brought back into communion with its Creator.
Such is hardly a startling statement. We’ve heard it before countless times, after all. But what if we were to take this same theme and apply it to today? Would it not produce a few discomforting thoughts?
If we apply this theological assumption to the Church’s role on the contemporary world stage, we’re headed into dangerous terrain. Who are we to presume what’s necessary to save our world?
In other words, there’s a vast, comfortable distance between ancient biblical writings and the thoughts and norms of today. While we tend not to quibble with Israel’s role amid the thought patterns and beliefs of the ancient Near East, we’re not at all sure we want to carry that forward into today’s world.
I have a nephew, Nick, the son of my sister, who currently is pursuing a Ph.D. in political science. In preparation for his thesis, he’s been living and travelling extensively in the Arab world, mostly in Africa. He just returned from a three-month stint in Tunisia after a lengthy stay in Niger. His plan is to return to another part of Africa in the coming months.
On his twitter feed he recently posted a friend’s message that’s opening line caught my attention: “You want the simple one-line explanation for what caused ISIS?” he wrote. What followed was a single sentence, one that formed a rather long, extended paragraph.
Among the various pre-conditions he believes set the stage for the rise of ISIS, he cites “the global decline of universal ideals.” This got me to thinking. If universal ideals are by definition universal, how can they decline?
Let me interject a bit of controversy here. For all the sins of European/Western colonialism throughout the world, one of its hidden benefits was bequeathing Western humanistic values. Such humanistic values, whether we wish to admit it or not, are Judeo-Christian at their core.
Thus what may be unclear to Nick’s friend is that the “universal ideals” of which he speaks are more perception than reality. They only seemed universal when most of the world (or at least a good chunk of it) was under the influence of the West.
As the West has retreated from the world stage, for good or ill, other less “universal ideals” have replaced the Western ones. These values, dare I say it, are not always as humanitarian as the ones they’ve replaced. Enter ISIS.
After our worship service on Justice and Peace Sunday this past fall, I spent quite a bit of time during coffee hour talking to Steve Keenan, part of the husband and wife team who spoke to us about their missionary work in Liberia.
Something Steve said really struck me, in part because I had never thought of it but also because it seems a bit counterintuitive. One reason Liberia has had such a hard time developing a viable economy, he said, is that it has no colonial past! It thus lacks Western economic know-how and the Westernized physical infrastructure such as roads, bridges, trains, or airports required to support such an economy!
Part of why this sounds so counterintuitive and surprising, I suppose, is that we take the benefits of the West for granted. We assume everybody thinks the way we do and has what we have, including the “universal ideals” Nick’s friend falsely presupposes.
Which brings me back to the words of Isaiah. Israel, he believed, would be restored to glory that it might serve as a blessing to the entire world, not just to those within its soon-to-be restored borders. This, he believed, was God’s will.
Applied to today, one wonders whether such talk makes any sense. For if my hunch is correct, we’re far more apt to assume humanistic ideals are universal and not unique to any religion or culture.
As I say, the “universal” values of the West only seemed universal at a specific moment in time. Which is another way of saying that values, ideals, and virtues are not attributes we’re born with, that everyone has, but are qualities that must be learned, practiced, and inculcated.
The ancients got this right. They believed everyone is born with the capacity for virtue, not with the virtues themselves. Virtues must be taught, practiced, and lived out. And since they’re learned, they can be unlearned. They can “decline,” in other words, as Nick’s friend absentmindedly put it.
The Enlightenment tells a different story. It argues that we are born with virtues, and that we know innately what is true, just, good, and beautiful. What throws us off is that the world and its structures interfere with this natural goodness, suppressing our innate virtuousness. If only we could eliminate these pernicious outside impediments, life would be perfect.
It is this false perception of how human beings actually become virtuous that tempts us to deny, among other things, the importance of defending and promoting the gospel’s truths. We figure we can dispense with all organized religion and/or moral instruction because it isn’t at all necessary, or beneficial. And while we’re at it, we can chuck out all things Western as well!
Again, the temptation is to wrongly assume that humans possess a deep-seated, natural goodness and that this goodness necessarily shall prevail. All we need do is remove all competing religious and moral truth-claims, which only encourage harmful parochialism and needless division, and everything will come out in the wash. How so? Because deep down we all share the same “universal ideals.” The specifics of any given tradition only ghettoize us and prevent us from apprehending the larger truths everyone already possesses.
So what’s my point? Simply that the Church should take Isaiah’s words to heart still, even today, perhaps especially today. For if Isaiah is right, we as the heirs of Old Testament prophecy still have a critical role to play in being a blessing to the rest of the world, and a light shining in the darkness. Amen.