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A Field of Ruins

OT Reading: Joshua 24:14-28

NT Reading: Acts 15:13-18; Ephesians 2:14-16


The idea for this sermon occurred to me last March early on a Friday afternoon as I drove up through Dutchess County on my way to a seminarians' retreat. It was part of my process of retooling for the Unitarian ministry. I was reminded of the long drives I used to take, several years before, when I was going to Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts. I always love seeing the rustic hillsides which seem placidly undisturbed by busy motorists like me rushing by beneath them. The hills and trees, unlike me, are in no rush, no hurry at all. From age to age they are the same. Or nearly so. And yet on these hillsides one can see clear evidence of time and change. Only, again, it isn't the immemorial hills and fields that change, but rather what human beings have tried to leave to mark their passage on them. One sees the fallen remnants of old stone fences, precariously balanced stacks of bricks that suggest an old fireplace, though the wooden walls that once hugged them have long since rotted away. One sees half-erased vestiges of once-busy roads that now lead to obscurity.  Men have disappeared, leaving only traces of their passing, bits of stone skeletons of their dwellings and paths.

Robert Frost wrote, "Something there is that doesn't love a wall." And that something is time. Time delights to erode the walls we build as if to make clear that we can't build a wall against time itself.  We can't shut out change and death. It will always find ingress, like Cyrus sneaking into fortified Babylon through the forgotten sewers. I saw some of these fossil fence walls, fallen chimneys, roads leading nowhere, that March afternoon. And what should pop into my head but a quote from Emil Brunner. I had read his book The Scandal of Christianity back in 1973, I guess 22 years ago! And this quote stuck with me: "Historical criticism has transformed the gospels into a field of ruins and all attempts to restore a gospel harmony and all protests of fundamentalism are vain." I certainly concur with that judgment. But Brunner goes on from here, and not in the direction you might expect. Is his confidence in orthodox Christianity shaken? Not one bit! 

"It is a curious thing, however, that the recognition of this fact has not been able to shake the Christian faith of some of the most critical of historians. The Jesus who encounters us in these fragmentary and precarious traditions, is for them, is for us, as he always was, Christ, the Son of God, the God-man, and the uncertainty of historical knowledge as such does not alter the fact that faith in him carries absolute certainty. If we ask how this is possible, the answer must be that God, even through these historically precarious testimonies, can bring before us his Son as the Incarnate Word, and testify to him through his Spirit, so as to fill us with absolute certainty.” (p. 25)

I confess my utter bafflement that Brunner can let himself get away with such an obvious subterfuge, that he can so successfully pull the wool of the Lamb of God over his own eyes! If you strip away the theological smokescreen, what have you got left? Brunner seems to be saying: "My mind is made up. Don't confuse me with the facts." What Brunner is doing here is engaging in what Jacques Derrida calls "Presence Metaphysics." That is, like Rene Descartes, Brunner has decided he just can't doubt what is "clearly and distinctly" seen in the mirror of his mind. Like John Calvin, Brunner is saying that the truth of the gospel is self-authenticating, self-evident. To doubt it would be like doubting your own existence. That way lies self-delusion, and a great deal of Derrida's enterprise of Deconstruction is the attempt to put the logical microscope to supposedly self-evident truths in order to show the hidden seams, the cracks, the fine print, the puppet strings you can't usually see. In other words, Derrida shows that every supposed truth that commends itself to your credence like love at first sight is not what it claims to be.

It has not appeared out of nowhere. It is not an immediate experience of truth. Rather it is the product of derivation, of construction, something mediated and indirect. Something with a chain of evidence behind it. And you have no business accepting it, believing it, without carefully examining that evidence. This is why you don't just hire someone on the basis of a good impression made in an interview. You want to see their resume, read their recommendations, talk to former employers. Because some things are too good to be true. So I should think we ought to be suspicious of all that testimony of the Spirit, that self-authenticating business. We'd best look at the evidence first. There were plenty of people who looked at Jim Jones or Jim Bakker and thought of Goldwater's slogan: "In your heart you know he's right." But he might still be wrong. It's amazing to me that Brunner himself attacks just this kind of Presence Metaphysics when he runs down Emersonian Transcendentalism, Hindu bhakti mysticism, and others. He knows that intuitive certitude can be delusive. One might still be separated from God and yet be able to have some thrilling religious experiences. Here's an astonishing example.

“The Rev. John Newton, the author of some of the most valuable hymns in the English language, was once, as is well known, a slave-trader on the coast of Africa. After his conversion, his moral stupor was such that he saw no necessity for abandoning his diabolical trade. On his last voyage to the African coast for cargo, he said, he ‘experienced sweeter and more frequent hours of Divine communion than he had ever known before.’ He wrote again of his infamous occupation: ‘No other employment affords greater advantages for promoting the life of God in the soul, especially to one who has command of a ship.’ This is the testimony of a slave-dealer. Yet the piety of John Newton at the time was scarcely less questionable than that of St. Paul. His moral sense had not been educated to see the exceptional depravity of the course he was pursuing. The Bible itself speaks of conscience as seared, blunted, and blinded… In Newton’s case it was drugged, so as to give out delirious judgment.” (Thomas Cook, New Testament Holiness, p. 148-149)

And how does Brunner pretend to know that Emerson, Ramanuja, and all the others were so disastrously wrong? Simply because they do not believe that man is a sinner and must get right with God through Jesus Christ! In other words, because they are not Christians. Brunner is looking at the fine print in their cases. He recognizes that there might be some anterior considerations that should make us doubt that what some deem to be self-evident is actually true. But then we have to ask why his own view is exempt. The answer is quite simple: because it is his view! And because it is his, it is self-evidently right! Emerson and Ramanuja might say the same thing. And they'd all be just as wrong, just as biased, just as arbitrary as Brunner.

I don't want to take that approach. And this means, as you know, that, for me, for the accuracy of the gospels to be demolished like the Jerusalem Temple in 70 AD destroys the credibility of orthodoxy. Christianity, like the gospels, is for me a field of ruins. But, as I said, I love old ruins scattered across the field like the skeleton of some prehistoric monster. They tell us much in their petrified silence. What do we learn from the ruins of the gospels, of the Christian faith, indeed of all the other faiths, for historical criticism has destroyed them all?

Think first of the fallen stone fences. What were they for, when they stood at attention, on duty, when they were intact? They were sentinels keeping out intruders, marking barriers beyond which one dare not pass. Now they do not serve any such purpose. Now they are but stony memories. As they lie in the sun, covered by the snow or the vines, eroding in the wind and the rain, perhaps they dream of the old days when they stood alert against all trespassers. They are no more barriers. Now they are monuments. Now there is free passage. There must be, or the walls would have been kept up, repaired, replaced. But they remind us that once we could not pass there. They are a gauge of how different the present is from the past.

If there is no trace of a barrier, then one does not know that one is freely crossing it, and a dimension of the crossing is lost. In terms of human relations, I think friendships and romances may be enriched and strengthened if they have first been broken and then mended. One is conscious that one is crossing a barrier that has been breached, and so the crossing means more. I live in a racially integrated neighborhood. So what? I am a Mississippian. I cannot take racial integration for granted. It would be better had there never been a race problem. But there has been, and, knowing that, it gives me a special thrill to shake hands with my black neighbors. There is testimony to distance overcome.

And so with religion. I love to study the differences between the world religions at least as much as the many similarities. I love to understand each in its distinctiveness, to map out the walls and barriers that once separated them from each other, and which still cause separation and strife. Studying them has convinced me that each is a genuine and powerful path of the Spirit. They are all true. And yet, in their literal claims, not a single one of them is true. Is the Koran the dictated Word of God? Of course not. Was Gautama Buddha really tempted by Mara beneath the Bodhi Tree? Will you really see the Peaceful and Wrathful Deities after death, and then be reincarnated? I see no reason to think so. Did Moses lead the Exodus, hand down the Decalogue? Get real! For me, they are fields of ruins, marking the effaced boundaries that I rejoice to cross as I choose. I rejoice to meet and have fellowship with members of other religions. Let them believe what they will; it doesn't bother me. I look past it.

No, I guess I don't. I am fascinated by their beliefs and practices, even when I don't share them. Especially when I don't share them! They are no more fences keeping me out. Now they are silent monuments witnessing to the traditions of the past, and I pause before these markers with respect. In the reading from Joshua you heard of the Stone of Witness set up by Joshua to remind the people of the covenant they had made with Yahveh. This reminds me of the Rock Edicts of King Asoka, an early convert to Buddhism who erected great stone pillars etched with a few simple ethical commands he wanted his subjects to observe. That's how I view the fallen ruins of the great religions, born in the pre-modern period and dead or dying in the modern world. They witness to the faith of the past, and as such they are grave markers. We do not simply obey them, for they have no living voice. But we pay them our respects. As Nietzsche's mad prophet said of the churches: "What are they now if not mausoleums for the dead God?"

What happens to the missing stones in a fallen wall? Where did they go? Couldn't have eroded so fast! No, they are gone because people came and took them away to use in a new structure. The new structures may be far more elegant than the old, or they may be primitive and barbaric, like the rude castles built by the barbarians who toppled Rome and scavenged building materials from it. We do the same thing with the scattered ruins of the gospels, Christianity, the other religions. We scavenge. We pass by and notice some impressive bit of masonry, some doctrinal or ethical insight that commends itself to our belief. So we look both ways and then hastily appropriate it! And the edifice we build with it, and with other similarly scavenged parts may be like a bird's nest, made of all sorts of bits of twine, straw, pine needles, even plastic. Not too elegant, lacking the classical symmetry of the theologies of the old religions, but functional, customized, more livable. Or like a second hand or even third hand car. It has no respectable pedigree, you can't even tell what year or model it's supposed to be! But it gets you there! (To tell you the truth, and to press this analogy even farther, I guess I don't even have a car! Lost my license! I have to take various buses or taxis!)

Here is an evocative passage from H.P. Lovecraft's "The Outsider": “[I] wandered through the open country; sometimes following the visible road, but sometimes leaving it curiously to tread across meadows where only occasional ruins bespoke the ancient presence of a forgotten road. Once I swam across a swift river where crumbling, mossy masonry told of a bridge long vanished.”I find very powerful the image of following an old road, as if by following its traces one could enter into the past. As if at the point where the old road vanishes from sight, it continues invisibly on into the past. And if you followed it, you would wind up there, too. About a year ago, I wrote a story, surely not the first one, based on that premise, called "The Shunpike." But it is a powerful theological image, too. Many of us are learning to "read the silences in the text" of the Bible, as Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza puts it. We are learning, like a detective, to sniff out the clues, the less-than-obvious evidence of something someone has tried to conceal. Specifically, we are trying to exhume the remains of the lost "other" Christianities, where women played an apostolic role equal to men, where some cherished the dangerous secret teachings of a mystic Jesus.

We hope to find our way along a largely effaced old road, so we can arrive at the hidden destination the road once led to. A couple of years ago, archaeologists made a great discovery in Saudi Arabia. The Koran and the Arabian Nights had spoken of a place called Irem the City of Pillars, destroyed by Allah for its pride. Finally its ruins were discovered. How did they do it? They used infrared aerial photography to discern the dim traces of old caravan routes beneath the shifting sands. And once the old paths were discovered, they provided access, as they used to, to old, long-hidden destinations! That's what we are trying to do by recovering ancient Gnosticism.

But I have said that orthodox Christianity itself has become for us a field of ruins, and so have the other major faiths. Their paths are overgrown, too. New walls and structures, new super highways interrupt and obliterate them. Perhaps we feel we cannot follow the old paths because they no longer lead anywhere. We may not even be able to take the notion of resurrection or immortality after death seriously. I think the time is past when religious existence demands or even presupposes a belief in life after death. We just don't know. We can't know, and I agree with Tillich: it's not even a theological question! But we may yet find it is worth retracing those defunct roads as far as we can, even if the old destination is closed off to us. We might decide that the meditative regimen of Buddhism or Sufism would uplift and enlighten us, expand our consciousness--even if we dismiss as fantasy the notion that we could end up in Nirvana after death. It doesn't make religion pointless, as if it's only purpose was to issue us tickets to heaven. Paul says, "if we have hope for this life only, we are of all men the most miserable." But surely he knew better. Pascal had his head on straight: even if there is nothing after this life, faith enriches this life! And if it doesn't, why bother with it? We might even reverse Paul and say, "If we have hope only for the next life, then we are the most miserable wretches." As Hosea Ballou said, we shouldn't urge people to repent of their sin because they'll face ruin in the hereafter. No, it's ruining their lives now! It's not that religion brings reward after you die; it's worth it now or it's not worth it at all.

So we may undertake to follow the Way of Jesus or the Path of the Dharma, even if we are satisfied that it ends in the blank wall of death. That willingness will itself be a kind of spirituality. We will be doing what Krishna prescribes in the Bhagavad Gita: acting without regard for the fruits of actions. The walking of the way is itself the destination, just as my drive up through the beautiful upstate countryside was the highlight of my weekend.


July 21, 1995




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