Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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Epiphany’s Holy Naïveté
In his Harvard Commencement address in 1995 Vaclav Havel, the Czech writer and dissident who led the “Velvet Revolution” that brought down the communist regime, spoke about a set of spiritual values that transcend particular religions and cultures.
“I have not lost hope because I am persuaded again and again that, lying dormant in the deepest roots of most, if not all cultures there is an essential similarity, something that could be made – if the will so existed – a genuinely unifying starting point for that new code of human co-existence that would be firmly anchored in the great diversity of human traditions.
“Don’t we find somewhere in the foundations of most religions and cultures, though they may take a thousand and one distinct forms, common elements such as respect for what transcends us, whether we mean the mystery of being, or a moral order that stands above us; respect for our neighbors, for our families, for certain natural authorities; respect for human dignity and for nature; a sense of solidarity and benevolence towards guests who come with good intentions?
“Isn’t the common, ancient origin or human roots of our diverse spiritualities, each of which is merely another kind of human understanding of the same reality, the thing that can genuinely bring people of different cultures together?
“And aren’t the basic commandments of this archetypal spirituality in harmony with what even an unreligious person – without knowing exactly why – may consider proper and meaningful?”
The persistent and courageous hope that led so many to follow Havel in his dissent in the 70’s and 80’s and that inspired such an outpouring of national mourning following his death last month, often led to the charge of political and even philosophical naïveté during his years in political office. There is, to be sure, a touch of the naïve in these Harvard remarks as they seek to temper post-modern particularity with what the intellects among us assume to be merely the faint odor of nostalgia for something that can transcend and unite but which, in the end, is carried away like incense drifting toward the shadows of a darkened nave.
And yet, is not the wisdom of God often wiser than our own? As the church prepares to celebrate Epiphany, the notion that divine glory is to be revealed beyond our confining categories and reside beyond our particular religious identities is both compelling and challenging. The wise ones who came from afar to find the Baby were not Jews and they were not Christians. Nor did they convert while in Jerusalem or Bethlehem despite the church’s efforts to “Christianize” their bones as relics for veneration. Their spirituality is elusive, ill defined, hardly orthodox as churches and synagogues, mosques and temples often expect and frequently demand. Yet they came, drawn by light and life and the desire to respond to heaven’s gift with gifts of their own.
Epiphany does, of course, draw us to a Manger, or in some traditions to the Jordan where a very particular baby was born and a very distinct man was baptized. But what is revealed is a promise for all, not a possession for some. Scripture begins with the creation of a common humanity and ends in a city where the glory of God is enlarged by glory that the nations and foreign kings will bring to it. Sadly, too many readers of the Bible get stuck in the middle where a particular incarnation is misused to read many out of God’s cosmic story of embracing love. How good it is, therefore, that as the Christmas season concludes we meet the unchosen and the unredeemed at the Manger, bearing their gifts and proclaiming their praise.
During the dark years of the Cold War Vaclav Havel’s courageous dissent and sage words shone like a beacon from the east, bearing to many the hope of freedom. His words following liberation cast a different kind of light, dismissed by some, ignored by others. Today, however, we are reminded by the beloved old tale that sages from the east illumined the Christmas story with an unexpected glow from an unexpected source. Havel’s plea for a global ethic rooted in an expansive spirituality need not trouble Christians who cherish the infant of Bethlehem (or, for that matter, the Infant of Prague!). It simply reminds us of those ancient eastern sages who rejoiced in the holy gifts of life and love and hope wherever they could find them in this often bleak and deadly world. What is naïveté to the wise men of today’s world of competing hegemonic claims and what is heresy to the religious zealots of our culture clashes may, in fact, be the very light Isaiah once promised drawing nations and rulers to the brightness of God’s dawn.
John H. Thomas