We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Glory of God's Creation

On May 12, 2013, the Rev. Katharine Jefferts Shori, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, preached a sermon at All Saints Church, Steenrijk, CuraƧao, on the glory of God's creation, particularly in humanity, which has been widely criticized esp. for her treatment of the Apostle Paul.  Commenting on Paul's encounter with a young women who was possessed by what the NRSV calls, "a spirit of divination," which story is found in Acts 16:16-19, Shori criticizes Paul for depriving the women of her spiritual gift of divination.  According to a posting at Anglican Ink entitled, "Diversity, not Jesus, saves says Presiding Bishop," critics have had a field day in finding fault with Shori for the sermon.

Let us grant that her interpretation of the passage does seem to be a bit of a stretch, a reading back into ancient times of contemporary early 21st century values and attitudes that doesn't do justice to the intent of the story.  That being said, Shori's exegetical lapse hardly seems to merit the intensity of criticism it has received.  She doesn't take the side of Satan, as some of her critics claim.  Later in the sermon, she praises Paul for treating his jailer with "compassion rather than annoyance" (see Acts 16:25-34) and wonders, "what would have happened to that slave girl if Paul had seen the spirit of God in her."  What seems to have been lost in the midst of all of the criticism is the larger point Shori made in her sermon, which is, "We live in a time when we need to see the glory of God in every other human being, and also in the rest of creation." She called on the congregation to see and celebrate the shining glory of God in those who are different from them. She concluded her sermon by saying, "God among us in human form is the most glorious act we know. We are meant to be transformed into the same kind of glory. Let’s pray that God’s glory may shine in us and in all creatures!"

Shori must have known that her take on Paul would be provocative.  Did she deliberate provoke controversy?  Perhaps.

In any event, her sermon is important for at least two reasons.  The first is her celebration of diversity as a glorious element of God's creation.  The tone of the whole sermon is very upbeat and faithful to the larger biblical theme of the goodness of Creation and the glory of its Creator, which glory is planted in every human being.  The second reason the sermon is important is the way Shori treats Paul and the Bible.  She reads the text critically.  She sees flaws in the stories it contains.  It is a human product, which by God's grace still reflects the Presence of God in our midst.  The Bible is not perfect and should not be treated as such, lest it become an idol itself.  Still, it too reflects the glory that God has imparted to humanity and does so in a way that is authoritative for the vast majority of Christians, including Shori herself.

In all of this, a self-critical approach to faith is important.  At their very best our answers are feeble human attempts to grasp That which can't be grasped, using words that can never encompass the Subject of our faith.  We have an enormous capacity for distorting the glory in us, and no one is without that capacity.  It is crucial that we be critical of ourselves with an honest humility.  Amen.