Triumph or Catastrophe?

I was driving back from doing the grocery shopping today, and happened to hear the last movement of Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony, the Pathetique. What a sad, emotionally draining piece of music, with its evocation of the “dying of the light” at the end. Whenever I hear it, I remember the only time I ever heard it played live, in August 1974 in Washington DC at the Kennedy Center.

The day before the concert, Richard Nixon had made his final television speech live to the American people, saying that he was going to resign from the presidency. The evening of the concert, he signed his letter of resignation and boarded the Presidential helicopter as I sat in the concert hall, listening to this powerful music. I knew what was happening at the White House — and couldn’t help thinking of Nixon and his emotions on that evening. I was not a fan of his, but believed that I felt the depth of his personal “dying of the light” a few blocks away. The magnitude of the catastrophe he had brought on himself must have sunk in as he signed that letter and walked out of the White House with his wife, to never return.

Triumph or catastrophe?

When David Frost interviewed Nixon some years later, in 1977, he met a man intent on defending his record as president. The terms of the interviews did not let Frost fully probe into what happened in the Watergate fiasco but, finally, Frost was able to get Nixon to appear to have regrets over his actions. “Nixon admitted that he had ‘let down the country’ and that ‘I brought myself down. I gave them a sword and they stuck it in. And they twisted it with relish. And, I guess, if I’d been in their position, I’d have done the same thing.'” [from Wikipedia] So, was my empathy on the night of Nixon’s resignation mistaken? Was Nixon so convinced of his own ‘righteousness’ that he actually felt few regrets?

What strikes me about this question is that it applies to all of us. When we come to end of our lives, will we be able to see things the way they really are? Maybe not. Like Nixon, we might defend ourselves very skillfully, overlooking our faults and remembering our successes. But at our ‘dying of the light’ what will be the truth about our lives? Will it be whatever we wish it to be — or are there standards? Christians believe in God’s final judgment — but we also believe in His divine mercy. Is it possible that our life could turn out to be such a catastrophe that God’s mercy might not be able to change it into a triumph?

If we take seriously the human responsibility for making choices and using freedom for good and not evil, it seems to me that we have to admit that some humans could architect a catastrophe from their choices. It appears that Judas Iscariot, Hitler, Stalin and others have done that. But surely our transgressions don’t match these ‘super-heros of evil.’ God can overlook things and find ways to make our ordinary lives right. This brings me to the point of this post.

What if we knew the truth about God’s purpose for us — our unique talents, gifts and situation? What if we could see the gap between what might have been and what actually happened, due to our choices? My sense is that this gap would likely be enormous for each of us — because we do not take seriously the purpose for which God created us. Perhaps our blindness is what God overlooks in His mercy. Perhaps we are judged leniently, against what we consciously and willingly have chosen to recognise as God’s purpose for us. Even against that relaxed standard I feel uncomfortable. In the end, I am uncertain about what the truth about my own life will be. I can only say with the Psalmist, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions.” [Psalm 51:1]

Seeing with Jesus’ Eyes

“Our learning to see with Jesus’ eyes will eventually result in us desiring with Jesus’ heart — which is to say, our receiving the mind of Christ, which is how we discover the mind of God.” [James Alison in On Being Liked]

There is a chain of reasoning associated with this statement that each of us needs to ponder.

  1. Do we want to learn to see with Jesus’ eyes? Grace puts the desire in every human being’s heart but it doesn’t automatically ‘program’ us. That is our choice, using  God’s other great gift of human freedom.
  2. Once we say yes, however incoherently, to this first question we are faced with finding a new way to learn how to see with different eyes. Our minds are programmed to see in a certain way and our teachers see with the same eyes, and teach us to see like they see. Jesus’ is the only one who can teach us to see with his eyes and mind. How do we learn to listen to his teaching? This generally happens once we choose to become Christians, but that is only the first step in a journey of learning.
  3. Human beings learn from others within a cultural context. The best way to learn from Jesus is within a Christian culture. The only place that such cultures exist are in local Christian communities and even these may largely see with secular eyes, not Jesus’ eyes. So, do we search for the ‘right’ church or do we become part of a local church and help make it the ‘right’ church that sees with Jesus’ eyes? The Spirit leads us on this journey but my general sense is that we must follow Jesus’ example and ‘heal the sick’ right where we are. That means transforming the local church where the Spirit has led us.

What is seeing with Jesus’ eyes like? Alison says that Jesus’ eyes are ‘clear, limpid, non-accusing,  non-persecuted.’ These are all metaphors but if we unpack them , it may give us a picture of what this Christian Ideal is like in our experience. Once we begin to understand, then the desire to see like Jesus does will awaken and grow within us.

The Bible tells stories about how Jesus saw. In modern terms, he not only taught but modeled seeing as God sees. I will use the story of the woman caught in adultery [John 8:3- 11] to illustrate how we can use the Bible to unpack the metaphors for seeing that Alison uses.

Jesus’ eyes are clear

Jesus sees the woman standing in front of him, and the whole scene in the temple clearly. We might think that this is some kind of divine capability and he saw into her heart and the hearts of the teachers of the law. If we believe that, we probably give up and tell ourselves “I could never see like that.”  But imagine that Jesus simply sees the terror and guilt in the woman’s eyes, and the anger in the teachers’ eyes. And he sees all this taking place in the temple dedicated to God. We can do that kind of seeing if we simply notice what is going on. Having clear eyes like Jesus means our eyes are not clouded with non-essentials, and are focused on what is there in front of us, in the moment.

Jesus’ eyes are limpid

Limpid is an unusual word. It means transparent, translucent, serene, peaceful. As Jesus clearly saw the drama of the scene in front of him, he didn’t get caught up in the emotion that infected everyone. He didn’t automatically side with the woman nor did he engage in a debate with the teachers (though he could have easily done that).  He simply ‘bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger.’ We usually think he is writing divine messages to the teachers or something like that.  But imagine he was just disconnecting himself from all the emotion and conflict surrounding him, allowing his serenity to become obvious to everyone. We could hope to practice limpid seeing in that manner, first imitating Jesus’ serenity then actually realizing  it in all situations.

Jesus’ eyes are non-accusing

The story explicitly says that Jesus refused to blame the woman or hold her responsible for her actions. We normally interpret that as Jesus overlooking the worman’s sin in order to teach the officials a lesson. But what if he genuinely liked this woman and did not accuse her of anything? What if God sees the woman and likes her, no matter what? What if Jesus (and God) say, “She is a creature and creatures do these things. What’s not to like? If I’m looking for perfect people to like, I won’t find anyone.” Seeing in a non-accusing way like this is very hard for us. We (and our churches) have standards for ‘good’ people and ‘bad’ people. We don’t generally like people who are very different than our standards for ‘good’ people. We may ‘forgive’ them and overlook their ‘sins’ but our seeing is still not Jesus’ seeing. We can only pray for God’s grace to give us this type of seeing.

Jesus’ eyes are non-persecuted

Persecute is another seldom used word (although we do persecute others all the time). When we berate someone, pester them or worse, abuse them, we are persecuting them. Jesus didn’t lecture the woman and simply advised her to “Go now and leave your life of sin.” More importantly, he didn’t berate or abuse the teachers who were misrepresenting God. He simply said, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” His way of seeing the situation touched them and they all walked away. You’d like to think that they began to understand God’s way of seeing. At least we can begin to learn how to see like God ourselves.

Seeing with Jesus’ eyes means seeing in all these ways at once. Jesus’ way of seeing is based on liking ourself and others. As Alison puts it, “Because God likes us he wants us to get out of our addiction to the ersatz (phony, commonplace, conventional, culturally conditioned) so as to become free and happy.” The place to start liking, it seems to me, is liking all other Christians! If we are evangelical, liking the catholics. If we are catholic, liking the evangelicals. Not getting hung up about our differences but liking our diversity. Once we have mastered that situation, we can attempt liking others who are different than we are, who have different sins than we do, who may even wish us ill. We learn that liking in our local church, as it engages with the surrounding local communiity and the world. That’s why we must belong to a Christian community, and to transform it — to learn to see with Jesus’ eyes.

Are you kidding me? The World is filled with grace? What about Auschwitz or Rwanda?

How could grace have been present when millions were murdered in concentration camps, or in genocidal racial conflicts? We know that broken and sinful men and women did the awful deeds at Auschwitz and in Rwanda. We know that the “system of the world,” political and religious, stood by and let this happen. Where was grace? That question boils down to how does God see the world and how does he want us to act in the light of these undenible horrors?

In a word, God sees the world as being profoundly “wounded” and in need of healing. Many modern secular thinkers are beginning to see the same thing and have written scholarly studies about what has been happening in our world, good and bad, over the past 500 years since the ‘enlightenment.’  The sociologist Pierre Bourdieu coined the term “Précarité” (precariousness) to describe what ensues, when all our trustworthy structures and rules seem to many to fall apart. The foundations have been removed from beneath everything western civilization thought was reliable only a few years ago.  Now, many people feel that there is nothing solid underneath our ideas, and certainly nothing that transcends these ideas. This emptiness creates a vacuum of values, one that has no solution because we ‘deconstruct’ any solution that is offered.  We cannot fill the vacuum we create with postmodern scientific and philosophic views with anything reliable.  There is no language, at least that we trust anymore, to express true values. Religions have such language but they are not trustworthy according to our rational standards of truth.

At the core of our being is a paradox that we cannot resolve: We hunger for meaning, yet, in the deepest sense and as far as our minds can reach, we sense that we cannot create trustworthy meaning for ourselves. “The western mind . . . by the late twentieth century had largely dissolved the foundations of the modern world view, leaving the contemporary mind increasingly bereft of established certainties, yet also fundamentally open in ways it had never been before.”  [1] The only solution is trusting in  meaning outside ourself, in acknowledgement of our dependence. But another modern crisis – reducing our ability to trust — does not permit us to do this! Catch 22. So, the vast majority of people simply refuse to think about such ‘deep and meaningful’ things at all! The explosion of ideas on the Internet and of chatter on Mobile Phones is how many people hide their emptiness from themselves.

Trust is based on reliable people and reliable institutions. While we may still trust our spouse or our neighbour, there has been an almost universal loss of trust in institutions, especially religion in the twentieth century. How often have you heard, “I’m spiritual but not religious” or “organized religion” used as an epithet? Consequently, as trust in churches and religion eroded, as it has in the west, trust in Jesus as a leader has also eroded.

Finally, there is a crisis in the use of power, reflected primarily in the economic system of the world. The “new economy” is creating great wealth for a few but is also creating deep feelings of anxiety and confusion.  “The rewards of the new economy are coming at the price of lives that are more frenzied, less secure, more economically divergent, more socially stratified.” [2] Everyone has been exposed to the financial insecurities caused by the Global Financial Crisis (GFC). More to the point, billions of people on our planet are living marginal lives while a relative handful lives in extraordinary comfort, controlling most of the world’s wealth.

At long last, the voices of women are also being heard about the misuse of power in the system of the world. “There is a white patriarchical male system. The dominant system is destructive to people . . .” [3] Small wonder that many women feel like second class people in American and Australian society, and poorly used in most organizations. The women in every society on the planet feel (and many millions are) oppressed by a male-dominated system! Perhaps, the wounds of our world are becoming apparent to you.

In summary, we find ourselves at an apparent dead-end. The daily deconstruction of what we previously believed in has removed the safe harbours of belief of the past.  We can’t go back and find safety.  There is a widespread sense of something being missing or lost, creating emptiness and the inability to act.  “Mental depression – a feeling of one’s impotence, of inability to act, and particularly the inability to act rationally, to be adequate to the tasks of life – becomes the emblematic malaise of our late modern or postmodern times.”  [4]

The mind of man has created many wonderful things – but it has also created the situation that I have just described. How? By its insistence, particularly in the western world, that the mind of Jesus has no power in modern society. There are many ‘humanistic’ programs trying to deal with the situation – feeding the poor, healing the sick, sheltering the homeless, providing ‘safety nets’ to the ‘have nots’ – and I applaud these. Many are sponsored by Christian organizations. But these programs do not (and cannot) heal the deep wounds that I have described. That is why Jesus came to earth and commanded the Christian church to grow and make disciples of all mankind – to heal the wounds that man’s power and pride have inflected on the human race and the world.

By now, the mind of God must be obvious to you, once you begin to see the world and leaders as wounded. Empathy, compassion, going out and searching for those in need, self- forgetfulness, practical help not words. All these characterize Jesus’ ministry and the ministries of many Christians over the past 2000 years. Yet, Jesus was focused on individuals and, when he encountered the ‘system’ did not seem to explicitly try to change it, even the Jewish religious system.

So, you may say that one way of healing the world might for us to simply imitate Jesus – ignore the system and heal individuals. A case can be made for that. But, to me the lessons of Auschwitz and Rwanda are too plain — tending to the victims of the wounded system is not enough. Jesus’ transforming power shines ‘light’ on the system too. Christians must also change the system that allowed (and still allows) such crimes to happen, while ministering to its victims wherever they may be found. That is another reason why we must transform local churches!

Walter Brueggemann in Finally Comes the Poet summarized God’s transformational view of our situation. “When that speech of God’s fidelity, sovereignty, and presence is uttered again, the world is changed. The silence of God has been oppressive, but somehow we had not noticed. We imagined we were children of modernity: liberated, autonomous, on our own. We thought the speech of this other one had been banished and with good riddance. But the ideology of autonomy is not sufficient. It leads eventually to alienation, isolation, and rage. In our autonomous silence, we deny our true selves, created as we are, for conversation, communion, trust, and yielding.” Brueggemann then quotes the prophet Isaiah: “For a time time I have held my peace, I have kept still and restrained myself ; Now . . . I will lead the blind in a way that they know not, in paths that they have not known I will guide them.” [Isa 42:14-16] Transforming your local church means taking this promise of God seriously. Christians need to become God’s right arm of loving transformation, fulfilling His purpose of rescuing the human race from its stubborness and ignorance –even though we believe our knowledge of the world and our ability to find solutions on our own are sufficient.


[1] Richard Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind, Ballantine Books, New York, 1991, p. 394.

[2] Robert Reich, The Future of Success, Knopf, new York, 2000, p. 8

[3] Anne Wilson Schaef and Diane Fassel, The Addictive Organization, Harper & Row, San Francisco, 1988, p 44.

[4] Zygmunt Bauman, The Individualized Society, Polity Press, London, 2001, p. 43.

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