Rev . Valson Thampu- OCP News Service- Ecumenical Series – 29/1/18

(Convocation address at Dharmaram Seminary, Bengaluru, 29 January 2018)

Relevance determines worth. What is irrelevant is dispensable. It is the barren tree, in the Baptist’s metaphor, at root of which the axe is already laid. In spirituality, it is fruitfulness that matters. You shall recognize a tree, Jesus said, by its fruits. A mango tree that produces no fruit for decades might as well be a prince under a curse in the guise of a dry trunk in an ancient Indian fairy tale. It is irrelevant to life.

There is no individual or institution that does not covet relevance.  ‘Recognition,’ as the American psychologist Thomson pointed out decades ago, is one of the fundamental drives of human psyche. Relevance is basic to recognition. Yet, our craving for recognition does not motivate us to be relevant. We would rather impress, than serve.

The problem is that the road to relevance runs, like in fairy tales, in a strange sort of way. The spirit of Charles Perrault’s Cinderella is connected, somehow, to the Magnificat -that God exalts the humble. Perrault’s Sleeping Beauty, not less than Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, has a reference, to Jesus’ insight in the 11th chapter of St. John that death is, after all, only a long, long sleep. Gabrielle-Susanne’s Beauty and the Beast enfolds the gospel insight that everything, even a revoltingly ugly beast, becomes beautiful when loved. So, love must precede beauty. Oftentimes, we crave for recognition within the set, stereotypical grooves of the status quo. This allows us, at best, to find a place, even a niche, for ourselves within the prevailing scheme of things. This is to understand ‘relevance’ as the world understands it. That will not do for us, if we are to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world.

To be the salt of the earth, we have to be different, in essence, from the rest of the world. If the salt used is no different from the rest of the dish, the dish shall remain flavourless. Difference is, hence, basic to relevance. To be relevant to a sinful world, one has to be sinless; it is as simple as that. Difference, to be spiritual, has to be for the sake of what is differed from. The difference we embody has to ‘dwell in the midst of’ what we differ from, ‘full of grace and truth’. (Jn. 1: 14)

Jesus came for the sake of the world (Jn. 3:16). But he did not come burdened with the pattern and paraphernalia of the world (Lk. 9:58). His birth itself was an illumination of the discipline of spiritual relevance. He was born beyond the backyard of the status quo -born in a cattle-shed and laid in a manger. That was because man’s world was too small for him. Hence Luke’s terse statement, “There was no room in the inn for him” (Lk. 2:7). We know from experience that there are always enough rooms in the inn. Availability depends on who comes. What would you do, if you are the inn-keeper, if a cosmic guest comes who is larger than the globe? The world we pride ourselves on is no larger than a tiny, tawdry inn, for purposes such as these.

We have just emerged from the season of Advent and Christmas. The star and the manger are still fresh with us. Ever wondered why they co-exist in the Christmas view of life? The manger is a call to rootedness, which is encoded in belongingness. It is this sense of belongingness that provokes and irritates our times, the icon of which is the autonomous, self-accentuating individual. Yet, that rootedness is integral to the heavenly view of salvation. No manger, no star. That is Christmas. Why else, do you think, would the star disappear over the palace of Herod? And that too, irony of ironies, from the eyes of the ‘wise men’ of the east!

But rootedness, per se, becomes imprisonment, if the star of wholeness does not shine on it. If we are to remain truly human in being rooted, we need to be rooted in the whole, not in the part (1 Cor. 13:10). That has been the issue from the beginning of times: should we be anchored in a square inch of creation, or in the the awareness of its wholeness? The choice is simple and terse: The Garden, or the forbidden fruit? The Garden, unlike the plucked apple, has a cosmically organic connection with the star, with the Milky Way and solar systems spinning in the infinite space. It is our limitation that prevents us from thinking otherwise. That is why spirituality is needed at all. The day linking the manger and the star becomes native to us, we shall be in the Kingdom of God that is already come upon us (Mtt. 12:28)

Biblically,‘relevance’ is a function of growth. What little I know of biblical spirituality makes me wholly convinced that its spotlight is continually on the need to grow. It will not be inappropriate to regard Jesus as a clarion call to grow towards fullness (Jn. 10:10). ‘Fruit’ as a spiritual symbol, points to relevance. It embodies a tree’s relevance, not just to our hunger, but to the righteousness of creation. It is also a symbol of God’s justice, sense of beauty, and faithfulness. So, it is possible to know where we stand vis-à-vis spirituality. Do we grow through our discipleship? Do we hunger and thirst for our growth; for that, I believe, is the not-so-hidden meaning of the Beatitude that locates the secret of happiness in our hunger and thirst for justice (Mtt. 5:6). Can it ever be that pettiness and thirst for justice coexist? Passion for justice is the hallmark of stature of individuals and sanity of societies.

In his tiny book Political Ideals, Bertrand Russell identifies three aspects basic to a wholesome way of life. Second on the list is a sense of reverence for life, the first being a creative orientation to human nature; and the third, freedom to express oneself fully through work. Categories, since the time of Aristotle, have been crafted mainly for the sake of convenience,and are not meant to be water-tight compartments. It is impossible to separate creativity and reverence. Reverence is a pre-condition for creativity. And creativity inspires reverence. God is revered because he is the Creator. All things can follow only from this starting point. So, reverence has to be, as I see it, the first and foremost feature of a relevant model of spirituality. But what does reverence involve?

It involves a sense of infinite wonder. God created the earth and everything on it, including humankind; and, at each stage, he was filled with a growing sense of wonder. He punctuates creation with, “good . . . good . . . good . . . very good” (Gen.1). The only other instance in which anything is repeated four times is in the first of the two Cardinal Commandments (Lk. 10:27). (The expression being, ‘with all your’). All of us retain residual memories of our infancy. Memories of wondering about everything that we came across. Our eyes were full of wonder, and days with curiosity! Who taught the frog to leap? Who painted the wings of the butterfly? The bird to sing? The dog to bark? Why do stars twinkle? It is this precious gift that we lost, via education, in growing up. “Shades of the prison house,” Wordsworth laments, creep upon human growth.

There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth and every common sight,
To me did see
Appareled in celestial light
The glory and the freshness of a dream
It is not now as it hath been of yore;-
Turn wheresoever I may,
By night or day.
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.
(William Wordsworth:
Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood)

No wonder, Jesus insisted that we turn back and become like children (Mtt. 18:3)

There is a relationship of inverse proportion between this wonder and pessimism. Pessimism is not inhospitable to pleasure. The spiritual antonym of pessimism is not optimism, but a sense of wonder; the one thing that befuddles the modern rational man for whom life must be a clockwork of predictability.  The Bible, unlike theology, is full of wonders and surprises. I believe the miracles are there in the gospels because the Kingdom of God is an empire of surprises. Jesus takes an almost waggish pleasure in upsetting and exceeding presuppositions (cf. Mtt. 7: 21-23).  In our physical infancy the need for surprise was met by fairy tales. In our spiritual life, it is the Kingdom of God that supplies this need.  How can we separate harvest (or fruitfulness) from this element of surprise and wonder? Jesus was full of wonder (Lk. 7:9; Mtt. 8:10). The lilies of the field, the birds in the air (Mtt. 6: 25-33), the harvest ripe and ready for in-gathering (Lk. 10:2), the widow’s mites (Lk. 21:1-4) the innocence of children (Mtt. 18: 2-4) -all suffused him with wonder. He could never separate the wonder of a corn sprouting from the plausibility of feeding hungry multitudes.

So, what does it mean to turn back and become like children? Or, what are the essentials of a relevant spirituality?

Transcend the alien. In the Kingdom of God, like in the world of babes, there are only friends and neighbours, no strangers. (A kingdom of love will necessarily be a kingdom of babes and sucklings.) The sunset of infancy is signalled by the awareness of strangers. The tragic proof that our childlikeness is at an end is that our world gets filled with strangers. We have a fairly sophisticated name for it: “stranger-anxiety”. With respect to the child, we know this as a stage to be grown out of. But with respect to our spirituality, in the adult world, we call this loyalty and commitment. It was this that made Jesus a stranger amidst his own (Jn. 1:11-12) and, later, to the church of Laodicea (Rev. 3:20). Crucifixion is a blunt demonstration of what our spiritual ‘stranger-anxiety-syndrome’ portends. Given the dynamics of human nature, it is not Crucifixion, but Resurrection, that is  the real surprise. Tomb is for strangers; for death turns even dear ones into strangers. Resurrection signals a transcendence of the stranger principle. The Gospel narrative must, hence, end on an assertion of enduring and endless togetherness: “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Mtt. 28: 20).  Jesus came to end the enmity between us and God. The enmity is on our part. So, here are a few things that we could keep in mind.

Transcend the given and the familiar! The Bible spells out the essence of spirituality quite early. God calls Abram and asks him to leave his homeland and go to the land he had never seen before (Gen. 12:1-2). In a spiritual and psychological sense, the land familiar to us is ego -individual and collective ego. Jesus knew only too well that no one could reach anywhere in spirituality unless this prison was broken out of (Mtt. 16:24). In the parable, those who saw others as strangers are dispatched to the warmer hospitality of hell (Mtt. 25:43).  G. K. Chesterton, after making out a case for our taking interest in people of all sorts and in all situations, writes- “You would break out of this tiny and tawdry theatre in which your own plot is always being played, and you would find yourself under a freer sky, in a street full of splendid strangers.”  (Orthodoxy, 1908).

Transcend fragmentation. A baby is global. All babies look nearly identical at birth. Differences are superfluous, immaterial. (I remember the shock, way back in 1979, when, on the birth of my first baby, I was told, “It’s a girl”. To me, gender was jarringly irrelevant, beside the mysterious ambience of a new life.) Walls spring up in due course. Adult world teems with them. We associate walls with unfreedom. The only significant aspect of a prison is its formidable walls. In respect of criminals and VVIPs ‘security’ is the foremost issue. For the rest of us, it is freedom. Jesus came to set the captives free. (Lk.4:18). Captivity signals the extinction of relevance. Those who embrace irrelevance, in any which way, are de facto slaves. Jesus sets us free by making us relevant. That is why we can be ‘sent’ out to a world in need. Spiritual freedom is primarily predicated on ‘fruitfulness’. Freedom, understood spiritually, is freedom to be fruitful. (Eve, and Adam, mistook this as the freedom to be limitlessly consumerist vis-à-vis the Garden.). Freedom is benign only within limits. It is a murderous misunderstanding of the modern man that freedom can be limitless, as though the best and safest car is one without breaks.

Transcend narrow rationality. A child is refreshingly free reductive rationality. (How far will you go with your rationality in respect of the Cross of Calvary? Judas was certainly more rational than the other eleven.) We rarely realize how much we have walled ourselves in with our rationality -the rationality that kills the divine residue of wonder in us. It is our rationality that scares us that a multitude cannot be fed with a boy’s lunch packet, that lepers cannot be cleansed, the lame will not walk or the dead, live; no matter what we do. Yet, we tell children all the time that the moon is an uncle, the elephant is a friend, and the beanstalk taller than mountains! Our rationality skirts only ‘done things’. We better call it mediocrity; better still, littleness of faith (Mtt. 8:26).

Be in touch with the mystery of things. As we move from the solid state of anything (see reference to Henri Bergson later) to its liquid and gaseous state -what a trinity of possibilities! – we become like those who walk into the sea from the shore through the shallow waters to the deep, where we cannot be on our own feet. Like in falling in love (celibates will have to take my word for it), we are swept off our feet in spirituality too. That is the meaning I get from the account of the Pentecost in the 2nd chapter of the Acts of the Apostles (cf. also Jn. 3:7,8). The Rich Young Man (Mtt. 19: 16-22) was too rational, too pragmatic, too conditioned in common sense, to be swept off his feet. No doubt, he stands his ground; but he is left behind.

Watch a babe! How can you not notice the mystery that envelops her? Can you tell me why a she smiles in sleep? Who tells a baby to suck her mother’s breast? Or, sit up at a certain stage? Or, stand up? Or, walk? Parents, you think? I am not so sure. Only consider the mystery of standing up, for an illustration. A mere one-year-old, she is grappling with gravity! What difference does it make to her, in this matter, if her parents cannot distinguish gravity from depravity?

Now consider your adult, who imbibes alcohol just to be able to upset his balance! We are aware, somewhat, of the piteousness of this state. It escapes our attention that spiritual drunkenness is even more pathetic. We lose our spiritual balance when we are out of tune with the vertical and horizontal forces– analogous to the gravitational pull, vis-à-vis physical balance- that surround us. (Hebrews 12: 1 gives us an inking of it. So also, Ephesians 6: 12. Moses saw the burning bush in Midian (Exodus 3:1-17). The bush still burns, but for our eyes that see not. Saul encountered the Risen Christ on the Damascus Road. The same Lord is travelling with us on our own Emmaus Road all the time (Mtt. 28:20). Our eyes being employed elsewhere, we fail to see him. Whenever our spiritual balance is imperiled, the agonized voice speaks to us, “Why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9: 4).

In light of the above, shall we not ask- “Will my theological formation -what a hard grind! – prove a help or a hindrance in my being spiritually relevant to the world? In what respect do I need to de-school myself? And, in what respect go deeper?

One last word about religion, if you won’t get worried or upset. Religion, spiritually understood, is a movement, not an institution. So is life, as the babe knows it. Why else, do you think, does it feel soothed by rhythmic rocking? Momentum, not inertia, is the essence of life. It was movement that God breathed into Adam. Inertia is the hallmark of death. Death is a paradigm shift from momentum to inertia. That is why Jesus said to the paralytic, “Take up your bed and walk!” This momentum, as even science concedes, is the secret of rest! (It is the only wholesome alternative to sleeping pills). One of the most evocative images for me in the whole of the Bible is that of Jesus asleep on a cushion in a boat, upon a sea frothing with turbulence (Mk. 4:38). He could rest, because he was the essence of momentum, which is the key to understanding that he was the ‘light of life’. Light is, after all, a continuous outward flow of energy!

The need to remind ourselves of this vital principle arises from the fact that historical and practical compulsions dictate that our faith-life be organized into an establishment. There is no alternative to it, on this side of history. What is, and should be, possible is the preservation of the Spirit of momentum, of the ceaseless flow of life -as the Holy Spirit is- within the shell of the establishment. This is not as contradictory as it might seem. On second thoughts, it reveals itself as the natural order. We need to have a body for the Spirit to indwell; just as we need a glass to drink from. Glass is inert. Water is fluid. Life becomes impossible, if it has to be lived on the analogy of drinking water only from water. We will die of thirst!

Hence, the spirituality of transformation (Rom.12: 2). It can begin only as an article of faith that life has dimensions that are not immediately manifest. The manifest, as all spiritual traditions insist, is only a tiny part of the Whole, much of which is un-manifest. This is true about all of us. We are currently only a mere sign-post to who we can be.  Water is a useful illustration here. Its scope, under normal temperature, is different from its power and potency when it becomes  steam. Also, a bucket of water kept aloof from the ambient life-stream is different in innumerable respects to what it can be when it is relocated in the perennial flow of life.  So, transformation is integral to the law of nature, including human nature. It seems outlandish only when it is looked at from the perspective of the ‘grain of wheat’ that is sceptical of ‘falling down’, dying into a new life, and becoming part of a plentiful harvest (Jn. 12:24-26).

Transformation involves a paradigm shift from inertia to movement within the plan of God. The familiar illustration of this is that of water turning into wine in the wedding at Cana of Galilee (Jn. 2). The text reveals that it is in the process of being moved, or carried from the stone jars to the master of ceremony, in obedience, to the instructions of Jesus that it gets transformed into wine. We need to connect this passage to the 4th chapter of the same Gospel, which is structured on the contrast between the comparatively stagnant waters of Jacob’s well to the ‘living waters’ that Jesus is. Abiding in Jesus (Jn. 15:4) -the living waters- is the principle of transformation.

This pattern becomes clearer in the 5th chapter of John’s Gospel. Jesus begins the ‘festival of the Jews’ by visiting the Bethesda pool, the healing power of which is explicitly identified with the stirring induced to it. At stark contrast to it is the invalid, who is a picture of death-like inertia (cf. “I have no one to move me….”). Healing is a sort of transformation. Nothing short of transformation amounts to healing. So, this man, an invalid for all of thirty-eight years, takes up his bed and walks. Jesus reveals in this instance that this shift from inertia to movement/momentum is the essence of festival: the festival of life. Henri Bergson, in Creative Evolution (1907) is tantalizingly close to this spiritual insight. Given the constraints time and space, I shall limit myself to quoting a short passage from that work.

“. . . the human intellect feels at home among inanimate objects, more especially among solids, where our action finds its fulcrum and our industry its tools; our concepts have been formed on the model of solids; our logic is, pre-eminently, the logic of solids . . .”

It is the life-principle of movement-momentum that distinguishes the living God from idols. (In a state of spiritual and existential inertia, we cannot but prefer idols to the living God. Ask Aaron, the forger of the golden calf, if you are not convinced.) It makes eminent spiritual sense that idol-worship is anathema. But how do we know if we worship idols or God? It is not difficult. Only regard the momentum, or the lack of it, in our life. The contrast between the Jordan and the Dead Sea explains why Jesus was baptized in the former.

I close by referring to an image strikingly relevant to our theme. In Ezekiel 47: 1-12, spirituality is portrayed as a river that originates from beneath the sanctuary of the temple and flows out and away from it. As it does so, it gains in depth and kindles life wherever it flows. Fruit trees thrive on its banks. Their leaves have the potency to heal. We think it’s better to keep this river clean and safe by holding it within the temple premises.

By the time we reach the last chapter of the Bible (Revelation chapter 22), the leaves of this tree are revealed to have the power to heal nations! Perhaps, there is no spiritual theme of greater contextual resonance than ‘healing nations’ at the present time. This remains the foremost challenge today to the spiritual vitality of the people of God. This looks a daunting and outlandish task because we have not bothered to evolve a spiritual vision conducive and commensurate to it. This is not a question of magnitude, but of faith and vision. As of now, it looks comparable to having to feed a crowd of five thousand with five loaves and two fish, without the presence and authority of Jesus to bless and multiply them.

I cannot wish you, the graduating students, a blessing greater than this: may you spread abroad the radiance of surprises and wonder, in all that you do!

Valson Thampu
Email: vthampu@gmail.com

OCP News Service