Thursday, September 23, 2010

Believing in Folly

There are certain things in Holy Scripture which we find completely confusing. All of us confessed last Sunday that one of our readings (Luke 16:1-13), a parable of Jesus, falls into that category. It seems almost incomprehensible.

An incompetent manager is called to account by his 'lord' for mismanaging funds. To avoid becoming a pauper, the manager brings in his lord's debtors and lowers their debts, so that they will receive him into their homes when he loses his job. Yet, at the end of the story, his original master is pleased at 'the injustice', and the parable is framed by Jesus saying: 

Makes friends for yourselves by means of unjust wealth so that, when it fails, they might receive you into the eternal homes. Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is unjust in a very little is unjust also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the unjust wealth, who will entrust to you what is true? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.

Again, this parable offers us a conundrum, and we considered several ways of resolving the question on Sunday, though each brought its own difficulties. I also spent over an hour tonight, reading and re-reading this text, poring over it in several English translations and in the original Greek before writing this post, trying to think through another way of interpreting the text and hoping to deliver some sort of solution. After having thought through that option, I was once again dissatisfied with the way my new interpretation construed some of the details of Jesus' parable. 

I hope we can make a larger point regarding this issue, though, and I hope we can continue to talk about these types of questions. Namely, what do we do when we don't understand every part of our Scriptures? What do we do when the meaning of a passage eludes us, frightens us, or even seems improper? How do we wrestle with the text and with the problems we think we see, yet still remain faithful to our tradition and to God? Finally, can we come to the realization that there are some things in our faith we may never fully understand, no matter how hard we try?

Let me give an example which I hope will be comforting to you, rather than depressing. I am working on my second theological degree, I've spent years learning biblical languages, and I've spent hours just looking at this parable alone. I'm still not sure about every detail. Cameron, our chaplain, has spent even more time in theological education and just as much time grappling with this text, and he is also unsure of the parable's meaning. I want to suggest to many of you something that you may or may not find surprising: intense study is never a guarantee for understanding. If you are confused and unsure about aspects of your faith or of the Bible, you should not be surprised nor should you think you're alone. 

Now, I want to make it clear (and perhaps, ease some of your worries) that this 'confession' of mystery is no prelude to jettisoning the Christian faith. It's not all mystery, nor is everything unclear. Our faith is not without content or reduced to simple 'sincerity of opinion' as C.S. Lewis's parody of 'the Anglican bishop' puts it in The Great Divorce. I do believe there is a way to live as a Christian which is completely faithful to our tradition and yet honest about its difficulties and challenges. To paraphrase the Psalms, we can love even your rubble, O Jerusalem. 

If this idea intrigues you (or offends you or even causes you dismay), you should take an opportunity which the Chaplaincy is offering soon. At the beginning of October, I will be starting a weekly discussion group. This group will grapple with the sorts of questions raised in this post. We will be dealing with some more difficult passages and questions like the one above and like the Jeremiah passage from a couple weeks ago, constantly asking these two questions simultaneously:
  1. How do we make sense of these? 
  2. How do faith, challenge, and inquiry all relate to each other and, just as importantly, to my daily life? 
I hope that you're intrigued by the idea and that you have questions, problems, and difficulties in mind. We're going to take the time to explore them, and we're not going to settle for all the easy answers.  But, we will look for and find answers to our questions, even if they're not the ones we expect.

Zack Guiliano
Kellogg Fellow

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