Lost in one of the truly greatest passages of literature ever written is the phrase, “now we see in a mirror dimly.” It occurs in the famous love chapter of I Corinthians 13. We all know how the 13th chapter, the 13th verse ends, “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love” (I Corinthians 13:13, NRSV). It is the verse just before this that is often lost, ignored or casually skipped over. “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (I Corinthians 13:12, NRSV). Virtually without regard to background or conviction (Christian or non-, Republican or Democrat, rich or poor, ethnicity or nationality, gender or gender preference, etc.) we members of the human race can ascribe to the notion and need for love to be ultimately triumphant and central to life.
It is the truth of verse 12 that trips us up. Despite our best intentions and deepest convictions we see both truth and love in a mirror dimly. What appears to be most loving is often lost in the cacophony of modern life and chaos of the politics of our time (including church politics!). What purports to be a beacon of truth at best blinks through the shadowed fog of our present age. The Apostle Paul wrote for us as well as for the Corinthian church. We see in a mirror dimly. Seeing dimly, we live in an age of anxiety. Core values (both those in the culture and in the church) once again are caught in deep dispute and up for grabs. William Butler Yeats’ famous poem “The Second Coming” once again rakes our nerves and jolts our deeper reflections.
The first stanza appears to be written for our time.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
One of the more memorable speeches I have heard was given by Dr. George Hunter at Community of Joy Lutheran Church back in the mid-1990s. In the speech, Dr. Hunter introduced me for the first time to the disintegration of foundational enlightenment values (i.e. science reigned supreme and could solve our problems, an ethical consensus built on the centrality of reason and humanistic values supported by the world’s major religions held sway, with enough effort we humans could solve all our problems, human kind was/is essentially good, etc.). The phrase which has stayed with me over a two-decade long period of observation and learning was that we are watching/living through the collapse of the enlightenment values and convictions. Indeed, the center is not holding.
And yet, we who claim to follow Christ in all our widely varied differences come back again and again to the notion that Christ is the Center. The great Christian martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, gave a principled lecture on Christ the Center at the University of Berlin in 1933. Published posthumously through a reconstruction of his notes in a book of the same title (Christ the Center), Bonhoeffer begins simply. “Jesus is the Christ present as the Crucified and Risen One” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Christ the Center, p. 43). In a time plagued by Hitler’s theories of the master race and convictions of “might making right,” Bonhoeffer stepped courageously into a seething future anchored on core orthodox truth.
We who see in a mirror dimly need his advice and example for our time. Yet precisely because we at best see only dimly discerning the correct outlines of such truth, this will not be easy.
The New York Times called Allan Bloom’s famous book The Closing of the American Mind (published in the late 1980s) “That rarest of documents, a genuinely profound book.” Bloom’s opening posits the issue which is before the church as well as the culture to this very day. “There is one thing” he writes, “a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative” (Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind, p. 25).
It is just such a debate which is sweeping across present day Christianity. As I have written in an earlier blog this year, the claim of “alternative facts” challenges the very conception of the Christian faith regardless of our political persuasions. To deliberately reiterate: If, as some assert, truth is relative (without, we might carefully add, any notion of relative to what!) and radical equality of thought parades itself forward as the Zeus of modern intellectualism, then what pray tell is the center? Put differently, we are struggling to discern the outlines of what it means to say one is a Christian. This debate is sharpened between the polarities of a vague theism and a high Christology. The debate itself rests on an understanding of the authority of Scripture (a least for those who claim to be the inheritors of the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura) and historic claims of precisely what constitutes Christian orthodoxy.
While we in the United Methodist Church are swept up in the larger cultural debates of our time, we nonetheless as Christians hold to some faith distinctives. The earliest creedal claim that “Jesus is Lord” is declaration of who rules us as a people of faith over and above the politics, culture and tumult of our time. At our best, it is this deeper struggle which lies behind questions of Christian morality including same gender weddings and who may be appropriately ordained elder, etc. Furthermore, this same debate, at least for Christians, decisively shapes (or ought to shape) our convictions about health care coverage and the appropriate response to terrorism, etc.
Over the coming weeks I hope to write on some of the Wesleyan distinctives and the way they might impact our best thinking and motivate our deepest praying. I hope to do so in a context of asking careful questions about our relationship and witness to secular culture in the wider framework of what it means to be Christian. I make no pretense to being able to resolve the current moral debates which wrack both our society and our church. Rather, I hope to add a modest voice which might encourage deeper reflection.
I start this writing venture with a deep sense of hope. This, the United Methodist Church, is the Lord’s church and not ours! Maybe Yeats’ marvelous closing to the his great poem “The Second Coming” best offers us hope as the centers cannot hold and we can only “see in a mirror dimly.”
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
(“The Second Coming,” William Butler Yeats)