By Bishop Paul Marshall
[On Monday, Feb. 21, Bishop Paul posted the following note on the gospel passage for Epiphany 8, Sunday, Feb. 27, on Bakery, the interactive online discussion of the Diocese of Bethlehem.]
As some of you have had occasion to know, I view Matt 5-6 as Jesus' prolonged attempt to get people to think, to take religious living away from rote recitation and robotic performance to something much more profound and liberating. Sermons on these texts have to be preached in awareness that something is going on that is more than the total of passages we've been following.
Lilies and birds are fine in their way, but as far as we know, they do not experience consciousness the way we do. We experience ourselves as "I" that has to manage the business of living and which seeks meaning, an "I" that has power and responsibility and feels consequences. If the train of thought from the last two chapters has not been derailed, Matthew's Jesus points these fellow creatures out, I think, hoping that people will say both "yes" and "yes but."
In the gospel texts we have been following, Jesus has dealt with happiness (blessedness), relation to the past, authority, non-violence, and compassion for those on the outside.
And this week we have anxiety, now translated as worry. As we think of anxiety outside of medical terms (which are by no means irrelevant if one has a crippling anxiety disorder), there might be help in a passage scooped up from the web's usual suspect info site:
"The philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, in The Concept of Anxiety, described anxiety or dread associated with the "dizziness of freedom" and suggested the possibility for positive resolution of anxiety through the self-conscious exercise of responsibility and choosing. In Art and Artist (1932), the psychologist Otto Rank wrote that the psychological trauma of birth was the pre-eminent human symbol of existential anxiety and encompasses the creative person's simultaneous fear of – and desire for – separation, individuation and differentiation.
"The theologian Paul Tillich characterized existential anxiety as "the state in which a being is aware of its possible nonbeing" and he listed three categories for the nonbeing and resulting anxiety: ontic (fate and death), moral (guilt and condemnation), and spiritual (emptiness and meaninglessness). According to Tillich, the last of these three types of existential anxiety, i.e. spiritual anxiety, is predominant in modern times while the others were predominant in earlier periods. Tillich argues that this anxiety can be accepted as part of the human condition or it can be resisted but with negative consequences. In its pathological form, spiritual anxiety may tend to "drive the person toward the creation of certitude in systems of meaning which are supported by tradition and authority" even though such "undoubted certitude is not built on the rock of reality".
"According to Viktor Frankl, the author of Man's Search for Meaning, when a person is faced with extreme mortal dangers, the most basic of all human wishes is to find a meaning of life to combat the "trauma of nonbeing" as death is near."
Well, maybe that helped and maybe it didn't. But it does suggest some thoughts.
First, you wouldn't want to take a pill or other substance to make any of those examples of anxiety go away! You would want to work with the anxiety to detect the necessary spiritual quests that set if off. Jesus seems here to drive people to examine their basic attitude toward life (we already know that in Matthew he will elsewhere commend prudent, even creative, planning). This is certainly the ground where theology and therapy meet--we call it spiritual direction for good reasons.
1) In District III tomorrow (Tuesday), I will be asking how Tillich's view of spiritually anxious folk creating "systems of certitude" applies to our national and church life today.
--Is the political or religious right a symptom of a deeper hunger which Jesus is eager to feed? If so, how exactly do we feed it?
--For the militantly uncertain we ask, Is the political or religious left so intent on soothing symptoms that the underlying spiritual challenges are not engaged? If so, how do we encourage them to think beyond co-dependence with the entire species?
--As a rule, is our disapproval routinely engaged by the right and our blind spots by the left? Or is it the other way around? Where have we built systems of certitude, even about uncertainty?
2) I am an enthusiastic Frankl fan and was glad to see him in the last paragraph quoted above. Still, I wonder if the concept of a "trauma of nonbeing" as Frankl puts it isn't a very western and individualistic way to look at these problems. What if non-being is what our organisms finally desire so that stimulus will cease and evolution can get on with it? Cells that don't know when or how to die become cancer. Can Christians engage at all with the concept of Nirvana other than to criticize it? Listen to Bach's "Come Sweet Death" on the organ at played by Virgil Fox or Peter Conte (available as single mp3 files at either Amazon or iTunes), and ask the question again. The lyrics are made superfluous by the music, but they are in German and English here.
3) Jesus places trust in God above our symptoms and our misdeeds. How has that worked out for the Sudanese? If you answer that corporately there is a very hopeful answer. If you answer it from a theology of individual prosperity, other answers emerge and we have yet another theodicy problem. Is Matthew's recollection of Jesus using the plural ("you-all") in addressing his audience here useful to our ears who can hear that a part of overcoming anxiety is to be self-consciously a member of the human community? Is that stretching the text a bit too far?
It's only Monday, and preachers have a long time to think about this set of lessons, which we haven't engaged in more than a decade.
Enjoy the snow. It helps keep the pace of the holiday pleasant.