Sunday, November 26, 2017

Reign of Christ

If I told you “scientia potentia (sap-ee-en-sha po-ten-sha) est,” you would likely reply in two ways.

First, I expect you would concur that nothing is quite as cool as quoting Latin, and then you would agree that indeed, as the famous phrase says, “knowledge is power.” There’s lots of debate about who said to first, but most agree that in the realm of understanding, the more you know, the more power you possess.

Perhaps that’s why my doctor recently gave me a flu shot and a book during the same visit. (I should clarify, the flu shot is mine to keep—the book I need to return when I’m done with it). So I departed, fortified in mind and body, ready to overcome a couple of nasties with the innocuous names A/Michigan and B/Brisbane, and temporarily armed with Kurt Andersen’s new book called Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History.

Appropriate to the weekend, I’ve already learned how my Pilgrim forbears came to these shores seeking religious freedom, and then inadvertently created “a nation where every individual is gloriously free to construct any version of reality” he or she believes to be true.* Barely three-dozen pages in, and I can already see the seeds of “fake news” and “alternative facts.” I’m gonna get a flu shot more often.

Back to “knowledge is power,” I now realize that while I was busy at school reading the Germans—Bultmann, Buber and Barth—the kids down the hall were reading French post-structuralists with names like Derrida and Foucault (FOO-koh). It just sounds cooler—reading post-structuralists—and cooler still when I learned that if you call a post-structuralist a post-structuralist they get really mad—preferring instead to be called post-phenomenologists, which just makes me think of the Muppets.

I share all this because St. Paul has give us his own version of “knowledge is power” in Ephesians 1, and because the post-structuralists (easier than calling them post-phenomenologists) have kicked over the chair of knowledge and offered another perspective on “knowledge is power.”

So St. Paul. Paul’s version of knowledge is power is a little longer, a little more involved, and intimately tied up in the power of God. Here is his version:

18 I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, 19 and his incomparably great power for us who believe.

The rule with Paul is you have to break it down a little, so let’s hear it again but with an overall goal (“that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened”) and three ways this enlightening might happen: 1) to know the hope we’ve been called to, 2) to understand the riches we inherit as God’s people, 3) and to appreciate the great power we possess as believers.

In other words, as hopeful inheritors, we possess far more power than we comprehend, and it’s Paul’s wish that “the eyes of our heart” be enlightened. It’s a marvellous metaphor—eyes of the heart—and it points to something else Paul would have us remember: that we are part of the body of Christ.

The theme of Ephesians, the theme of this stage of Paul’s ministry, is the unity of the body of Christ. He’s already told us that we’re “all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3) and “the body is not made up of one part but of many” (I Corinthians 12). All of us, gentile, Jew, slave or free, are all given one Spirit to drink and all belong to the same body.

But Ephesians, or rather Paul in Ephesians takes this further still, combining the image of the body of Christ with Christ as the head of the church. These are familiar images, but it’s here that the head and the body are fully joined** and the power of God is revealed:

22 And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.

So back to our metaphor—the eyes of the heart—Paul is joining heart and mind, giving us the ability to see as God sees. With Christ as the head of the church, and church as the body, we are together able to move about and embody the fulness of God in the world.

In other words, knowledge is power. Knowledge is power both in terms of understanding and insight, but also in training the eyes of the heart on the world around us. Like the well-loved hymn, it’s asking God to become “a channel of your peace,” in hatred bringing love, to injury pardon, to doubt true faith, despair to hope, sadness to joy and so on. (St. Francis)

But there is more, and this is where our post-structuralist friends reappear. While we are busy seeing as God sees, understanding human need, embodying Christ’s compassion, we also need to understand the forces that make this difficult to do. We need to see what we’re up against.

Beginning in the 1960s, people like Michel Foucault were taking a second look at ideas such as “knowledge is power” and exploring the shadow side. In his thesis, Madness and Civilization, Foucault explored how mental illness has been regarded over the centuries, and came to the conclusion that well-meaning elites were redefining the topic to suit their own purposes.

Thus began an extended conversation about the nature of power and the degree to which we are conditioned to accept certain ideas as true because it makes for a well-functioning society. And from this, we see the seeds of our current situation. One group of kids were reading Foucault and saying “ban the bomb” and “make love not war” convinced that they could no longer depend on their leaders to tell them the truth.

Meanwhile, a second group were absorbing the same lessons about well-meaning elites redefining truth to suit their own purposes and founded organizations like the Moral Majority. The name of the organization was the giveaway: their view that liberal elites in the media and the academy were taking society in one direction while the “moral majority” would sooner go in the opposite direction.

I think you can see there this leads. A well-known personage I won’t name says “I’m not a big believer in man-made climate change” and we are left shaking our heads until it hurts. Knowledge is power, which should mean we have diagnosed a global threat and can now turn our attention to solving it. Instead, some are suggesting that knowledge is power and therefore they won’t be manipulated by the Chinese solar-panel makers who are somehow trying to rip us off.

So you see, it’s hard to be faithful when we can’t even agree that a problem exists. And it’s doubly difficult when the body of Christ is divided between left and right, unable to agree on a full-range of topics or even the biblical basis that led to these conclusions. It would be easy to blame the French post-structuralists for this, but the divide began long ago, certainly as far back as Plymouth Rock, and maybe farther.

Despite the divide, we need to stick with the goal St. Paul describes—that we “open the eyes of our heart” and see what God sees in the community that surrounds us. That we avoid getting drawn in to pointless debates and focus instead on the power to see deep need—poverty, hunger, homelessness, right-relations, troubled youth, meaninglessness and more.

And maybe—just maybe—this focus on the most vulnerable will be a bridge over the divisions that plague us. Maybe it will draw us outside ourselves and help us to see what God sees—no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, rich or poor, left or right—but one body made up of all God’s children. Amen.

*p. 35
**Martin, Interpretation


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