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What Language Shall I Borrow


Old Testament Reading: 1 Samuel 26:17-25

New Testament Reading: Mark 8:34-35


We have just completed a spiritual retreat. I was quite happy not to be the leader of it. I was able to participate as one more congregant, like in the old days before I dared don the pastoral mantel. I would like to continue in that role this morning, not so much as a preacher as a confessor. Let me give a testimony, a statement of where I stand. Not so much an exhortation as a witness.

You know the difference between the two. At least ostensibly a sermon is admonitory, hortatory: it sets forth a notion or a course of action that the preacher feels you ought to embrace. A sermon, then, is more presumptuous. But a testimony has less hubris. The giver of a testimony, on the other hand, merely says, "I will attest what the Lord has done for me." "This poor man cried and Yahweh heard him and delivered him out of a miry pit."  The testifier knows that his testimony may have absolutely no validity beyond the range of the end of his nose. Hearing it, one might be emboldened to seek great things from God on one's own behalf, but one would not necessarily expect the same things. We are told that the people rejoiced in the miracle births of Isaac and John the Baptist, but not that all the barren women of the neighborhood concluded God would work the same miracle for them. They learned a more general lesson, namely, that nothing shall be impossible for God.

So I want to testify today. I am speaking strictly for myself. But if you should find anything worthy, anything true, anything noble or worthy of emulation, I welcome you to think on these things. If not, just hear me out. I want to share with you the rudiments of a postmodern spirituality. A rudimentary spirituality, if not a postmodern one, is the only kind I know.

You know by now that postmodern and Deconstructive thinking have shaped my approach to a great degree. I have talked with some of you on various occasions about these matters. I want to open a window to the impact of these ideas on my religious thinking and preaching.

There are, as I see it, three main conditions of post-modernity, three realizations that lead to the postmodern perspective. The first of these is the loss of any objective, neutral standpoint outside us, between us, in which one might hope to stand in order to evaluate all the competing doctrines and religions and ideologies.  There is no court of appeal, no way to definitively settle arguments and debates. Any set of criteria you advance in order to establish your view as the best one actually are the product of your viewpoint. They do not stand outside it at all.  

Do the other religions seem deficient to you because they lack the atonement of Christ or the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith? Well, these things seem indispensable to you only because you are already a Christian. Or to take another example, we have always judged the author's intention to be the definitive, authoritative reading of the Biblical text. But there can be no definitive reading. No doctrine of authority can stand as long as it is based on the will-o-the-wisp of an objective, "correct" interpretation of the Bible. Postmoderns realize there is no such beast available.

The second trait of postmodernity is what the French Jewish philosopher Edmond Jabes, followed by Derrida, calls "the death of the Book." Lyotard calls it the breakdown of the Master Narrative. Each culture and religion is defined by a distinctive story. That story may be myth or history. It says what we are all about. Or what we think we are all about. The master narrative, the defining story of America is that of the Revolution of 1776, the Declaration of Independence, the Civil War as an atonement for the national crime of slavery, Manifest Destiny, Immigration and the Melting Pot, the dominance of the English language and the Judaeo-Christian tradition.

The master narrative of the Christian religion is the story of the Creation, the Fall in Eden, Original Sin, the choosing of the Patriarchs, Moses and the Exodus, Joshua and the Conquest, King David, the Prophets, the Exile, Jesus Christ, his cross and tomb, Easter, the Apostles bearing witness to the nations, the ossifying of the church into legalism, Martin Luther, Wesley, Billy Graham, and someday the Second Coming.

The Epics of all the nations, the Mahabharata, the Siegfried Saga, etc., all these are narratives that create and justify and govern cultures and their twins, religions. Each story once seemed infallibly true and noble to the adherents of it. It was easy to be sure the world was defined the way your scriptural epic said when the only time you encountered readers of a rival epic was on the battlefield. You could not take seriously their story. It would be like taking Axis Sally seriously!

All these cultural and religious master narratives were like so many self-contained books in a vast library. Or like competing titles on the shelf at a bookstore. But now the self-contained Book is gone. The boundaries between the different histories and worldviews of different cultures and faiths are rapidly collapsing. We do live in the Global Village. You cannot simply choose to remain ignorant of all the other stories told by your neighbors. You cannot love your neighbor without coming in some measure to love that story that makes him who he is. And as this happens, all the narratives are becoming blurred, losing their sharp out lines, blending together.

The Jew and Christian begin to dialogue. Can Jews accept Jesus as a prophet? Can Christians accept Muhammad as a prophet? Can Christians accept that God has a separate covenant with Israel? Christians are beginning to try on the Eastern doctrine of Reincarnation, or the secularist doctrine that there is no life beyond death. Liberal theology long ago assimilated many of the

rationalist assumptions of the Enlightenment. The stories, the worldviews, the heritages, all blend into one another. One cannot keep them apart. Textmerge, intertextuality, is the result.

The third mark of postmodernity is the disappearance of the self as what Richard Rorty calls the Mirror of Nature. We once thought knowledge was just as simple as beholding the truth in the light of consciousness. Now we realize that what we call self-evident is anything but! What seems clear and distinct is a highly censored and edited amalgam. What seem to us "first principles" are actually the end product of hidden processes. Even the self itself is the visible tip of a much greater iceberg that we can never know. It is a lens, a looking glass, and no one can say who is the looker through the glass. Is it the subconscious self that we can never know?

Here's what postmodernity means for me in terms of spirituality. Number one: my experience as a Christian can not be exalted over the other religious options. They are all beautiful, picturesque continents on which one may dwell, through which one may journey. For me the Bible is an ocean in which we may all swim, no longer a weapon which I may wield to prove I am more orthodox than you. A true doctrine is something I no longer claim to have, and which I do not even seek. I am persuaded that I will make greater progress on the assumption that the truth is the whole, and that if I start dividing it between affirmations and denials, I will have sundered the truth into half-truths, all lies.

Number two: the Books, the narratives, of all the religions have merged into a super-epic. The order of the chapters is not clear, nor which one is the conclusion. The great joy of the journey of spiritual learning may in fact be the game of reshuffling the chapters and reading them in a different order each time. Does the Old Testament find its fulfillment in the New? Does the New find its fullness in the Old? Or in the Koran? Can I understand the Sermon on the Mount without having read the Bhagavad Gita first? I do not think so. The Book of Christian exclusivism is dead. It has burst the bonds of those tight black covers and melded itself with the coverless texts of all the other books. And all are holy scripture.

But number three is the greatest realization for me. The death of the self as judge and infallible observer, the shattering of the self as the mirror of truth gives new meaning to the saying of Jesus, "Whoever would save his life shall lose it, and whoever will lose his life, the same shall save it." How can it be the Christian thing to do to agonize over the salvation of one's soul? Is this not the clinging to the self that Jesus warns is sure to be counterproductive in its results? Bonhoeffer explained that the would be disciple who is ever looking to his own spiritual progress, is equally for ever looking away from Christ and therefore ever regressing. Forget that self! Only so can you let him save it who can! Christ, not you!

I would put the problem a bit differently. Ever since the dawn of liberal, Modernist theology, theologians have been asked, and asked themselves, whether they could still claim the name Christian. Princeton theologian J. Gresham Machen felt that Modernists had so redefined Christianity that they had made it into some thing else. They were only confusing the issue by still calling themselves Christians. Our illustrious former pastor, Harry Emerson Fosdick, argued on the other hand, that the central and abiding core of Christian religion was the experience of God as shown forth by Jesus. As long as Jesus remained a beacon, a catalyst for the type of piety he embodied, we who strive to share it may call ourselves Christians unashamedly. Machen and his fellows, Fosdick implied, were the real innovators, invoking as shibboleths a raft of doctrines of which Jesus had certainly never heard.

Fosdick and Machen, the Modernist and the Antimodernist, battling over the name "Christian," were like two men on a windy day fighting over a single hat. There were two cold heads that needed covering. But as a postmodernist, I say there is no head, no peg, to hang the hat on! There is no stable entity called a self that need agonize over it's identity, as if it could possess one!

What am "I"? Am "I" a Christian? A secularist? A Buddhist? What would it mean for me to claim any of these titles? Would it not mean hat I have at length decided to bestow my imprimatur on one of the options as the true one? What presumption! How dare I make such a judgment?

And how could I learn enough in a lifetime to become competent to make such a choice? Am I a contestant on a game show, where I have a limited time to decide which is the right religion?

The great traditions loom up before me like a Himalayan range. I am the merest gnat buzzing idly about their foothills. It makes no difference to the mountains as to which of them I buzz about today or tomorrow. For me to think that it matters which mountain is this gnat's favorite is the most extravagant Narcissism! My choice between them is utterly insignificant.

It is for this reason, to change the metaphor, that I personally have come to view the great religious traditions as a well-laid Smorgasbord from which I may sample greedily. I am like an independent voter, caring not to commit myself to the ideological line of any particular party. And this is not because I view myself as an Enlightenment Individualist, a lone wolf, the captain of my fate. Just the opposite! I know that my selfhood is merely a role. It is not a valuable vote to be cast in favor of some dubious candidate for the truth. I do not have such power. My vote will not make any truth more true. My endorsement will not benefit the truth as if it were a product I might influence others to buy.

I view myself as having set forth on a long journey through many exotic lands. There are things to do in each place, goods to be gained. And in order to learn what may be learned in each place I must learn the language spoken there. I must change languages as I move on, from Buddhism to Liberal Christian Theology, to Deconstruction, and so on. I must adopt the working models and the assumptions of each, or I will not learn what each has to teach me. I borrow each language in turn.

Where am I now? Where are we? We find ourselves in a Christian church. We are speaking the Christian language and discussing the things that are available only in that language. Are we Christians? Let me turn to a new use one of Billy Graham's images: being in a church doesn't make you a Christian any more than being in a garage makes you a car.

It seems to me that to be a genuinely free spiritual community, and yet a Christian community, one in which the Christian language is spoken, requires some such stance. The very analogy implies one might have some legitimate business in the garage other than being a parked car.  As long as I am pastor of this church, my only question will be, not "Are you a car in good standing? Let's see your inspection sticker." I'm not sure I would pass inspection myself! Rather the question is "Do you have any business in the garage? Yes? Then come on in."




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