20 February 2008

Their Eyes were Opened! Not!!

We began Lent with the story of Adam and Eve, and the attractive tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil planted smack in the center of the garden of Eden. The myth (a story which tells deep truths which can be told no other way) is both puzzling and intriguing, and the basic facts are as follows: the fruit of this tree, though prohibited by God, was seen to be good looking and desirable for the nourishment and abilities it gave; Eve ate from this tree and so did Adam at her urging. Now, there's a ton of theological ink spilled on this whole topic, of course --- not least speculating on the nature of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil --- but despite all the theological enigmas that remain, the essential thrust of the story is that in arrogantly grasping at a "knowledge that would make them as God", Adam and Eve (i.e., humanity) exchanged an intimate way of knowing and seeing reality which was appropriate to them for one which was appropriate ONLY to God. In what is possibly the most ironic line ever penned in human literature, we are told, "Their eyes were opened!"

Of course, what the narrative REALLY describes is humanity's rejection of knowing themselves and the rest of reality as God knows it, that is, knowing and relating to things truly, and humanity's adoption of a false way of seeing and knowing (relating to). In particular we exchanged a destructive and narcissistic self-consciousness for a more appropriate self-awareness, adopted a sense of others as different than ourselves, and gave up a world of communion and authentic stewardship (service) for one of hierarchy, division, and self-serving, other-destroying, competition.

Far from having their eyes opened, humanity's ability to see (and be) rightly was crippled. God and God's vision was no longer the standard of reality, the measure of discernment or judgment, and everything built on this new perspective was skewed or distorted similarly. The first reading today (Tuesday, 2nd week of Lent) makes this clear: rulers have to be condemned not merely for failing to "rule" rightly, but for replacing justice with injustice, service with oppression, care with negligence; God tells them through his prophet, "Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your actions from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; defend the orphan, plead for the defenseless!"

In today's Gospel this picture is intensified. Even God's best gifts (the Law, for instance)become destructive when yoked to this way of seeing and relating to reality. Religion is used as the ultimate way to set people apart (and higher or lower, better or worse) from one another; some are righteous, some are sinners, some are scribes of pharisees (remember this word MEANS set apart), others are simply the little or the poor, etc. Human greatness is defined or measured at others' expense, so if one is a Master, others will be cast in the role of disciple, etc. As innocent and even positive as this can be, it tends towards identifying persons with their roles, and this is NEITHER positive nor innocent. It is also as far from seeing ourselves and one another as God sees us as we can get. Religion itself becomes onerous or burdensome for SOME instead of freeing and empowering, and even service can become a matter of charity which is demeaning to the one who is served. Jesus condemns all of this in a single sentence: "You are all brothers and sisters," just as he condemns identifying either ourselves or others by roles, or positions of superiority and inferiority: (Call no one on earth Father, you have only one Father who is in heaven," etc)

But taking Jesus seriously here necessitates a change of heart, a new way of seeing and relating to reality, as today's first reading from Isaiah makes clear. The last lines in today's Gospel give us a clue as to what this change of heart is: "those who are exalted will be humbled and those who are humbled will be exalted." In a word, the change of heart and perspective we are called upon to adopt is HUMILITY. It is a way of seeing reality which is more original and appropriate to humanity, a seeing and relating to creation as God sees it, and a living with and for others and the rest of creation in a way which recognizes and fosters their innate dignity and beauty.

Now humility is not a word we much trust today. It smacks of a lack of self-esteem, the inability to assert oneself appropriately, a passivity which is neither dignified nor healthy, etc. Even in today's gospel humility SEEMS to be linked to humiliation, and a kind of punitive reaction on God's part. But this is very far from what today's gospel is describing. Humility comes from the Latin word humus, or ground. In terms of today's readings, and especially in the context of Lent, humility refers to the state of being grounded in the truth of who we, God, and others really are --- that is, who God SAYS we are! Humility is a matter of seeing ourselves and others as God does ---- not as the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil we should never have eaten from in the first place induces us to. Humility, then, also implies the capacity to love others and all of creation for who and what they really are.

There is no doubt this notion of humility seems very far removed from the attitude which is supposed to have been inculcated in religious formation in the past through series of humiliations and the habit of self-deprecation. It is still possible to find handbooks on spirituality which approach the matter in this way and highlight the "nothingness" of the individual believer, especially in comparison to others or to one's God. Humility, in this mistaken sense, is meant to be achieved through abasement, and abasement comes through casting oneself lower than others on a scale which seems to me to be right off the tree of knowledge of good and evil filtered through human minds, hearts, and eyes, rather than through God's! But how is it God sees us and asks us to see ourselves and our brothers and sisters then? What is the truth humility embraces and lives from, the truth from which Jesus' affirmation that we are all brothers and sisters comes?

I think it is very simple (and I will risk paraphrasing and concatenating several Scriptures in one statement here): "You are my people and I am your God. Though you have turned from me time and again (and will do so yet again!), I will freely give my very life for you to rescue you from exile and bring you back home to me, for I love you with an everlasting love, and you are precious in my sight." The humbling or exalting referred to in the last line of today's Gospel refers to establishing us each in THIS truth and making it the perspective from which we see rightly all that exists. It refers to reestablishing the dignity we each have as God's beloved as the truth in which all else is grounded, and making it the lens through which we are able to embrace and serve God and his creation.

We sin against humility when we forget that this is the truth which grounds us and is meant to serve as the perspective from which we view and serve all of reality. We sin against humility when we treat others as different than ourselves by using some other scale or measure; we sin against humility by setting ourselves apart from others, but especially by setting ourselves EITHER higher or lower than they. To treat ourselves as the worst sinner ever (or even just a "worse sinner") --- or the least (or lesser) sinner for that matter --- are both expressions of pride, and instances of judging in ways forbidden to us. To treat ourselves as "nothings" when others are "somethings" is as serious a sin against humility as treating ourselves as "something special" when others are "merely ordinary" or "nothing special". Humility sees things very differently, with the perspective appropriate to human beings who are called upon to recognize the preciousness of every person, and every bit of creation, even while completely aware of how far short we each fall as well. Genuine humility recognizes both aspects, but the bottom line is ALWAYS, "I have loved you with an everlasting love, and you are precious in my sight." This truly is the lens through which humility views reality. Anything else is the lens obscured by the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and is inappropriate to humanity.