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Dr. Jan Pranger, Religion
Dr. Jan Pranger
September 13, 2010
A reading from An Interrupted Life, the Diaries of Etty Hillesum 1941-43
Monday Morning, 10 o'clock:
God is not accountable to us, but we are to Him. I know what may lie in wait for us. Even now I am cut off from my parents and cannot reach them, although they are only two hours by train away.
But I know exactly where they are, and that they're not going short of food, and that there are many kind people all round them. And they know where I am too. But I am also aware that there may come a time when I shan't know where they are, when they might be deported to perish miserably in some unknown place. I know this is perfectly possible. The latest news is that all Jews will be transported out of Holland through Drenthe Province and then on to Poland. And the English radio has reported that 700,000 Jews perished last year alone, in Germany and the occupied territories. And even if we stay alive we shall carry the wounds with us throughout our lives. And yet I don't think life is meaningless.
And God is not accountable to us for the senseless harm we cause one another. We are accountable to Him! I have already died a thousand deaths in a thousand concentration camps.
I know about everything and am no longer appalled by the latest reports. In one way or another I know it all. And yet I find life beautiful and meaningful. From minute to minute.
25 ‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink,* or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?* 28And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you-you of little faith? 31Therefore do not worry, saying, "What will we eat?" or "What will we drink?" or "What will we wear?" 32For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33But strive first for the kingdom of God* and his* righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
How often do we really experience the world as a place of wonder? How often do we see beyond the mere appearance of things and marvel at the reality that the world exists at all? That we are here to experience it. How often do we see the people we meet for the complex mysteries which they are?
I have been thinking about such questions as we prepare for this year's Fall Symposium, the theme of which is Awakening to Wonder, Re-enchantment in a Post-Secular Age. As Concordia community we will be wondering about wonder. What is wonder? And what is the place of wonder in our lives and world today?
These are not easy questions. But I believe that thinking about them will help us gain insight into our culture and our calling.
Much has already been said about wonder. 2400 years ago Aristotle called wonder the beginning of philosophy. In our time, Einstein spoke of wonder as the source of all true art and science. Someone who could no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, said Einstein, had his eyes closed.
The bible, too, speaks of wonder often. But it says little about wonder as a human emotion. Instead, it speaks about wonder indirectly, as our response to God's manifestation in nature and history. God's creation is wonderful, God's deeds wonderous. In the bible God's presence in the world calls forth wonder as the human response.
We should not misunderstand the biblical references to God's wonders as miracles. A miracle is something that defies the laws of nature. But the bible sees no such contradiction between God's wonders and human knowledge. For the writers of the bible it was a natural thing that God acted in the world. They lived in what we now call an enchanted world. God and spirits were seen as present in the world, directly impacting events.
Indeed, for the writers of the bible a world without deities and powers would be hard to grasp. Yet such is our world, a disenchanted world. For many of us the world is without self-evident divine presence. We experience a universe in which medium-sized bodies of watery matter exist for brief periods of time and interact on the basis of self-interest while themselves spinning the webs of meaning by which they live. That is the disenchanted world.
Maybe we don't recognize this world. According to a recent New York Times article 60 % of all Americans believe that the divine is directly involved in the events of their life. Their world seems hardly disenchanted.
And yet in many ways we all do live in a disenchanted world. We all participate in the worlds of science, technology, medicine, and the economy. And these worlds are all governed by impersonal laws of science, and have no immediate place for God. Profit rules the marketplace, not divine commandments.
This is the world of modernity, which the sociologist Max Weber pessimistically described as an iron cage: a world without mystery and wonder.
Weber especially pointed to the power of science to disenchant. The world lost much of its mystery as science came to predict the behavior of the world by describing the laws of nature.
Thus, over the course of the last centuries, we have moved collectively away from an enchanted world. And we have moved into a world in which supernatural forces are no longer self-evident, and in which meaning is subjectively attributed to a world which in itself is seen to be without it. This disenchantment has been anchored deeply in the central institutions of our modern society.
And yet, while it has become difficult for us to experience mystery and wonder in relation to the disenchanted world, many popular novels, movies, and computer games transport us to virtual worlds of magic and enchantment. For some Elfish is a second language, while others hang around on platform 9¾ waiting for the Hogwarts Express. And of course, many of us continue to believe in the divine presence in the world. The condition of our culture seems to be that we as human beings continue to live enchantedly in a disenchanted world.
So what is going on? Have we become very good at compartmentalizing our lives? Or is it that the human spirit simply cannot live without a sense of mystery and wonder?
And are these continued enchantments delights without delusion, as our speaker Michael Saler puts it? Are they a flight from the real problems we face, an escape to the enchantments of virtual realities?
These are all important questions. But the most urgent question I have has to do with the difficulty we have to experience wonder in the real world. How can we face up to our challenges without a sense of mystery? If not in a deep sense of wonder for the natural world, where can we find the motivation to struggle uphill against environmental destruction? If not in the mystery of the other human being representing God's image to us, where do we find the courage and love to overcome hatred and fear? If not in a sense of awe for all that is, for life itself that is a gift to us, where can we find God?
I am not so sure anymore that the greatest threat to experiencing wonder comes from science. As we will hear the astrophysicist Adam Frank argue, science, like spirituality, has its ground in a profound sense of wonder.
No, a greater threat to wonder I believe comes from cynicism and opportunism. From taking the world and life itself for granted, or from using the world and other creatures as means to fulfill our own desires.
But perhaps the greatest threat to wonder comes from fear. Fear sneaks up on us and deeply impacts our attitudes and actions towards others. Much of the ugliness that surrounded the commemoration of 911 found its source here - in fear and the manipulation thereof by forces of cynicism and opportunism.
Fear also obscures our sense of wonder. Being preoccupied with anxieties, we lose sight of what makes life meaningful, beautiful, and wonderful.
But is the reverse also true? Can a sense of wonder and mystery be an antidote against fear, and help take away the fuel of opportunism and cynicism?
The two readings for today certainly seem to suggest so.
The first reading comes from the diary of a young Jewish woman who lived in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam. Her name was Etty Hillesum - not Anne Frank - but unfortunately she shared Anne Frank's fate as a victim of the Nazi death camps. And like Anne Frank, what she left behind is a personal testimony that reflects her courage and spirit and love in the face of blind hatred and mortal danger.
Early on in her diary, Etty recalls an experience walking along the canals. She writes: "It was dusk, soft hues in the sky, mysterious silhouettes of houses, trees alive with the light through the tracery of their branches, in short, enchanting. I felt that God's world was beautiful despite everything . . its beauty now filled me with joy. I was deeply moved by that mysterious, still landscape in the dusk. I went home invigorated and got back to work. And the scenery stayed with me, in the background, as a cloak about my soul.
Etty Hillesum speaks of the world as if enchanted, as a place of wonder. It is not, however, a magical world of fantasy. She describes an experience of the world that testifies to beauty, and to God's presence. Her visual, enchanted experience disclosed a deeper meaning underlying the world of appearances.
If you are not familiar with Etty's diary I can only recommend reading it. I do not want to sum up in a few words the intense struggles with herself, her feelings, and the search for God of which her text speaks. However, as a reader I believe that her diary testifies to an ever deeper sense of divine presence which she came to experience in her life. And this presence became the source of her ability to stare down very real and justified fears.
In the passage which we read, she affirms the meaning of life and her love of it while she struggles with a doom that she realizes she and her loved ones may not escape. Rather than act out those fears in anger and aggression, she continued until the end to act towards all people with a deep love and compassion. And rather than holding God accountable for the danger she faces, she writes: "God is not accountable to us for the senseless harm we cause one another. We are accountable to Him."
Our other reading originates with a Jewish man, living under Roman occupation. A man whose prophetic critique put him in grave danger, too, and who would find himself a victim of Roman terror. A man, in other words, who, too, had much to fear. And a man whose audience had a lot to worry about.
We may easily hear Jesus' words in Matthew 6 along the lines of: don't be concerned with material things; look for what is spiritual and eternal instead. But we must remember who Jesus was preaching to.
Jesus preached to the have-nots, to the peasants of Galilee. They were worried about food because they often went hungry. And while they didn't have enough to eat, others did. Yet these others were so concerned for their own wealth that they refused to see the poor as fellow children of God. So Jesus speaks to people who nobody cares about - and who have little reason to see themselves as worthwhile.
To these people Jesus speaks of God's kingdom and its justice. This kingdom is not a place removed from this earth. It is the coming reality where the first will be the last, and where those who are invited don't want to be - because it is filled with people they consider unworthy. To Jesus' audience this kingdom is good news - gospel. Unwelcome in their society, they are God's guests of honor.
So Jesus does not come to tell a poor and needy people that food and material goods are not important. Yes, life - life in its fullest sense - is much more than food and drink. So precisely to free them for a fuller life, Jesus seeks to take away their fears for their daily survival. Precisely because they are considered without value he tells them that they are valuable in God's eyes.
Look he says. Look at the birds. Not look as "take in visual information," but as "see and wonder." Look beyond the appearances to a meaning that can be discerned underneath. The birds don't worry about food. And does not God provide for them? And will not God do the same for you?
And look again, look at the lilies in the fields. See their beauty and wonder. They have been given more glory than kings. In God's eyes you are even more wonderous than they.
I hope that the Fall symposium will help us see wonder - the ability to grasp the depth of existence in everyday experiences; the ability to see life as meaningful in spite of hardship; the ability to see God's image in ourselves and in each and every other being - as an important antidote against fear, hatred and destruction.