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A Mighty Fortress is our Mentality


Old Testament Reading: Psalm 122:1-9

New Testament Reading: 2 Corinthians 10:3-5

The world is wide and deep. Deeper than any line can sound. More expansive than any telescope can reach. More curious than any philosopher can account for. Yet it seems you and I must have some sort of map of reality inside our heads to be able to get through life. Of course it need not be very accurate.

It may be like one of those crude-looking maps of the medieval geographers: they showed the known world in some reasonable detail, more accurately closer to the cartographer's home territory, and more fanciful the further toward the margins you went. Finally, at the extremes, these maps showed monsters and freaks inhabiting unknown continents, cataracts off the edges of the flat earth.

In the same way, we probably have as much of the territory of life as we traverse each day covered pretty well, but when it comes to the marginal experiences of life, like tragedy or ecstasy, we don't quite know where we are, much less how to get there from here!

I guess the real danger is the insecurity that bids us imagine there is nothing beyond the everyday world of our experience: no moral ambiguities, no spiritual realities, no people with radically different values.

If this is so, if we have painted ourselves into a corner so that our world-view is as small and distorted as the world was on those medieval maps, there is a name for it: narrow-mindedness.

There is another name for it: the fortress mentality. Psychologists contribute yet a third handy name for it: premature closure.

The idea is that you have decided too soon that there is a place for everything and have sought ­too soon­ to force everything into one of the few places you know. To be realistic, you ought to hold certain questions open a bit longer. You ought to hold your options open for a while. But you just can't live with the ambiguity.

"Does he love me or not? Rather than give him time to decide, I will force the issue, because I have to know!" "Does God exist or not? I can't take the time to give the issue an exhaustive consideration, so I will just make a leap of faith. And then call it a greater virtue than rational consideration!"

You have met people with a fortress mentality, dogmatists, bull-headed types, ideologues of one or another stripe. And there may be as many reasons for their building their barricades as there are people huddled defensively behind them.

Often people in so-called cults first joined up because an evangelistic recruiter approached them at a stressful time in their lives and offered a quick fix solution in the form of a dogma or a mantra that works like a potent tranquilizer. The new zealot can never be persuaded to let go as long as he fears the monster of insecurity still crouches at the door waiting for him. He can never be rationally persuaded to leave the cult because rationality had nothing to do with his reasons for joining.

Say, this isn't why you became a Christian, is it?

Then again, some people may simply be ­tired­ of the search for truth, and they've just decided to settle on the latest candidate they interviewed. (A student in one of my classes at Montclair State told me this very thing just the other night, only hours after I'd written this sermon!) To challenge their belief would raise the spectre of intellectual effort that they've gladly put aside for good. Remember last week? I suggested that some will stick to a belief, no matter how wildly and obviously erroneous, because they ­cannot stand the pain of admitting they were so wrong­. How much apologetics is just face-saving? I suspect I a great deal.

I have, as I usually do, been slanting my remarks toward the intellectual side of existence (stubborn adherence to unlikely opinions), but don't you realize that there are ­emotional­ fortress mentalities, too?

Like when you decide because you were once (or many times) unlucky in love, you will never succeed in it. That if you were disappointed professionally, you will never succeed there either.

If you are so convinced that the future is predestined to be like the past, you have an attitudinal fortress mentality. No ray of hope can penetrate the dark battlements of your castle!

But do you know the problem with a fortress mentality? For one thing, of course, it is not true to reality, any more than those distorted medieval maps were. But beyond this, there are practical dangers. First, your fortress may become a ­prison­, trapping you inside. You may need to grow and expand beyond what you once thought were roomy accommodations. I think of the Great Wall of China, or the wall the Romans built in Britain to keep out the Picts. The Imperial authorities bought themselves some safety by building those walls, true, but they also foreclosed their options for future expansion.

A person who loves you may appear, seeking entry, but you are convinced you are unlovely and will drive her away. New facts or ideas may show you how your religious dogmatism simply cannot handle the data, but you are trapped. "So much for the facts!" you say, as you retreat to blind faith or some other lame excuse. And your faith cannot grow, as it must if it is to remain alive!

Second, suppose your erstwhile enemies become your friends? You will never even ­know­, because you are ready to shoot when you see the whites of their eyes! You will never let them get close enough to the barricades to pow-wow. If the war is over, you will never know it.

I think there is such a danger in the current world situation, if we do not move rapidly to junk the nuclear stockpiles of the United States and the Soviet Union. We are not enemies anymore! We should be allies, as the new Soviet foreign minister said last Sunday. But if we continue in outmoded patterns and speak only of "gradual reductions of levels of nuclear weapons," our negotiations will presuppose a suspicion and a hostility that no longer exist -- but which will ­again­ exist because of our keeping to the old patterns.

Are we and the Soviets merely enemies who do not distrust each other quite so much as we did, or aren't we new friends? If we are the latter, then let's start acting like it, lest we forget and assume the old roles out of habit.

Third, your fortress may become a Maginot Line pointed at ­you­! I'm sure you remember your history: after the Great War France built a mighty wall along its border with Germany. The wall, the brainchild of General Maginot, bristled with cannons aimed at the Germans. But it was immediately out of date, thanks to old thinking that would not change with the times. When the next war began, the Germans easily overran the Maginot Line and turned the guns on the French!

It could happen to you! The fortress you build to keep out emotional risks or dangerous ideas is ­brittle­! It will fall before the assault of life's challenges! And what was meant to protect you will fall on you, crushing you in its ruins!

I have known many Christians in my time who used Jesus Christ as the cornerstone for their fortress mentality, their Maginot Line. The One who is the Truth became a bulwark ­against­ any unwelcome truth.

The evangelistic crusade just past seems to me to promote just this sort of Christianity, one that blesses emotional abdication and retreat behind walls of pious irresponsibility. One which seeks to escape modernity behind a barrier of medievalism. I do not relish the sight of seeing the tearful masses coming forward to accept the Grand Inquisitor as their personal savior.

But I ­can­ relish the crusade in which the Apostle Paul was engaged, with keen-edged truth glittering like a sword in right fist and left!

Look at the imagery Paul uses. For him is Christ the foundation of a fortress mentality? No! Just the opposite! Christ for Paul is a battering ram to shake ­down­ the walls of mental fortresses!

You are comfortably ensconced, you think, behind the walls of your castle, like the doomed Belshazzar within the fortifications of Babylon. You smile indulgently at the seeming impotence of the forces without as you reach for another goblet of smug self-assurance. But as you lift it to your lips, you hear the far-off sounds, as of Cyrus the Persian, knocking, knocking on the fortress gates. Only this time it is ­Christ­ -- and he is coming for ­you­!

He comes to smash the complacency of your tidy but inadequate belief system. He batters down the wall of emotional insecurities and personal fears that shields you only from new hopes, new chances, new love and liberty. Christ means to smash your bastions to rubble and leave you standing alone, exposed to the four winds of change, of renewal, of encounter, of truth.

Because he knows that otherwise, your fortress will imperceptibly become your mausoleum!

And maybe it already has! Perhaps what Christ must do, and ­can­ do, is to call you forth, like Lazarus, from your chosen tomb.

Christ brings vulnerability. We become liable to have our precious theologies overturned if we are open to new truth. Liable to new disappointments if we allow ourselves to be open to love and hope. And these are precisely the shocks we built our fortresses to escape! What can Christ erect in their place?

­Only his cross­! It is, to be sure, a slim barricade. But it is enough. There can be no security in this world. The secret is to seek one's ultimate security ­beyond­ it, in what ­grounds­ it, in the grace of God, the love of Christ, that abides any storm, that remains when the arm of flesh sooner or later fails us. Nothing can separate us from that love and that grace! Not persecution, peril, famine, sword! Not doubt, despair, nor disbelief! And least of all can our own carefully built fortresses separate us from him! They cannot keep him out! Christ assaults our walls! Like Jericho, they will collapse. But precisely in this defeat we are more than conquerors because it is Christ who conquers us!




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