Wise Men

Isaiah 60:1-6

Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14

Ephesians 3:1-12

Matthew 2:1-12

Welcome to the New Year, 2004. I hope that you all enjoyed the holiday season and that the diets you swore to four days ago are still in effect. My wife and I spent much of the holiday with our daughter and her husband in Washington, D.C. It was a time of great religious services, wonderful gatherings of friends, lots of relaxing conversation, and almost non-stop eating, hence our resolutions about the belt. I thank Dean Meredith Ellis for taking the pulpit last week. We all know, of course, that the holiday season is very difficult for many people and look for ways to ease their pain. We hope that 2004 will bring a global peace that eluded us last year, as well as a sense of direction in a world that seems to be based on greed, from the nation’s geo-political extremes to our personal habits.

For Christians today is not only the first Sunday of the new year but more importantly, Epiphany Sunday. Epiphany celebrates the appearance of Jesus Christ to the world and the traditional text is the story of the three wise men who were the first strangers to pay him homage.

Wise men were not in good supply in the first century and, even with the recent addition of wise women, we still suffer from a short supply in the twenty-first. Late-modern society requires a good education, especially in technical fields, yet too many of our people lack the education even to be steady unskilled laborers. Democracy requires both a broad background and a refined capacity to learn new things and evaluate competing opinions, yet too many of us are merely parochial and cannot understand issues more complex than our immediate environment. Happiness in personal life requires knowing how to take satisfaction in our lives, in the lives of others, in the arts, the sciences, and public affairs, yet consumerist culture persuades us that satisfaction is impossible without more commodities. Our nation wields enormous economic and military power to impose the government’s will on others, yet without understanding from the perspective of those others what would be genuinely good or bad for them. Our cultural wisdom seems to be asleep! Thanks for letting me vent as a professor!

My particular concern as a Christian pastor is with the short supply of wisdom in our religious life. One of the glories of our age is the magnificent advance in scientific understanding of nature, yet too many popular theologies ask us to believe what we know to be false. Another of our glories is a fantastic explosion in the plastic and visual arts, literature, poetry, drama, dance, and music, fed by a wonderful confluence of world cultures and freed from the pieties of both Enlightenment rationalism and dogmatic religion, yet popular theologies insist on a simplistic picture of human nature we know to be false. The rock bottom conviction of the Christian faith is that the world is God’s creature, yet popular theologies ask us to believe in a God so small that the breadth and depth of creation cannot possibly be God’s creature. The human predicament addressed by the Christian faith is that our hearts are sinful, yet too many theologies simply aim to make us feel good. Jesus Christ asks us to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, yet too many theologies say it is belief that counts, or conspicuous membership in so-called Christian culture. Jesus Christ asks us to love our neighbors, to love those different from ourselves, the poor and culturally excluded, indeed to love our enemies, yet too many theologies say we should love first the Church. They say we should think for the Church, act within the Church, be first of all for the Church, because the Church is what Stanley Hauerwas calls a band of “resident aliens,” God’s people enduring a foreign land. To the contrary, the Church is a bearer of God to the world, the Church is for the sake of the world, the Church should invite all the peoples of the world into the hospitality of God, as Henk Pieterse says, not into the limited hospitality of the Church.

The result of too much sleepy theology is that the Christian movement is split by culture wars between conservative and liberals. It falls prey to patriotic enthusiasm when those aliens and enemies should be its loving concern. It neglects the poor and needy. It fails to see what God’s hospitality would be for those of other cultures. It fails to engage the infinite passions of our heart with God rather than self-interest. It leads us to believe that the limits of the relevant world are what we can own and control. It blinds us to the shattering criticisms that the arts make of our defensive self-images. It alienates us from the understanding of God’s creation, which is the beginning of true piety. It presents us pictures of a domesticated God when God in fact is wild beyond measure. Too many sleepy theologies have made the Church unwise. The official way to say this is that the Church has lost the Mind of Christ.

Of course I exaggerate. The Christian Church has many wise thinkers and leaders. So do other religions. Nevertheless wisdom does not now inform the Church in the complex ways needed because we seem to have a childish terror of the complexities of life. Too many believe we need a simple theology, because people are simple. So instead of thinking through the complexities and ambiguities of cultural life we sell the simple falsehood that you just need to sign up with the conservatives or liberals. Instead of the painful process of coming to see through the eyes of others, we half-guiltily advocate our own tradition as the only way. Instead of tracing carefully how our social system makes some people poor we promote feel-good charity. Instead of patiently inquiring what form of religion would be salvific for people different from ourselves we let ourselves believe a one-size-fits-all piety will do. Instead of stretching our minds to know God through the vast reaches of space and time, and to love God with a love that overcomes disappointment and death, we think of God as a nice, just king who will make things come out all right according to our conception of rewards. We settle for puny, simplistic symbols even though the divine logos with which we are given to think dares to think the unthinkable.

The Epiphany story in the Gospel of John reads something like this: “In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God. . . What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. . . . The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. . . . He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who
received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.” We need a new Awakening of wisdom for Christianity to be true to its light, its Logos. Otherwise we cannot be born of God, only of some simplistic fake god.

Now you surely have a sense of humor about this, knowing that I am a professor of philosophy, religion, and theology and am preaching from a university pulpit. What else can a person such as I say? Most ordinary parishes would not tolerate such a plea for more responsible Christian intellect. They would say my stance is elitist. But remember that Jesus’ first devotees were the three wise men from the East. The Epiphany of Christ was first to the wise. The wise were the first to enlist. Remember also that the First Great Awakening, in the 18th century, was started by people like John and Charles Wesley at Oxford, gathering fellow students for prayer and a mission to the poor; the leader of the American side of the First Great Awakening was Jonathan Edwards, America’s greatest theologian, whose last job was to be president of the college we now call Princeton. The Second Great Awakening, in the 19th century, took its start at Yale under the leadership of Yale’s president, Edward’s grandson, Timothy Dwight. If a Third Great Awakening should come from a university, that would not be surprising to those who know the importance of wisdom for loving God.

Christian wisdom to awaken our time must embrace all that can be known in the university and elsewhere, else we fail the Logos from which we have our being. Of course our knowledge is fallible, often little better than well-entrenched hypotheses; this holds for theology as well. For this very reason Christian wisdom should seek out any domain of inquiry that might correct it. That theology is best that makes itself vulnerable to correction from every angle, adjusts itself to
well-taken criticism, and steadies itself through learning from all sources of knowledge. I myself am convinced that most theologies that have had any currency whatsoever have had an important truth for someone in some context; theologies conflict with one another, and
become genuinely false, when they are generalized beyond those contexts. Sometimes in desperate prayer, an image of a domesticated God is just fine; but a domesticated God cannot be creator of this wild cosmos. The theological job of Christian wisdom is not so much to pick one theology to defend against all others, as happened in the First and Second Great Awakenings, as it is to understand the different contexts in which different symbolic expressions are true, and the contexts in which they are false. Genuine theology embraces and articulates all the ways in which God can be engaged truly, and guides the people in all of their contexts.

I have not been talking about the difference between a wise intelligence and a foolish or stupid intelligence. Rather I have been complaining about a sleeping intelligence, and calling for an awakening of that intelligence. The Christian tradition, like most others, is filled with wisdom that once was awake and vital. My complaint has been that many of those who should have been awake and vital with Christian wisdom—others can speak for other traditions—have been asleep. Christian wisdom has become too disconnected from the sciences and arts, too inward looking when it should make itself vulnerable to the world, too defensive of past identity. Sleeping wisdom leads to foolish behavior. I ask for a revitalization of Christianity in the twenty first century starting with an awakening of wisdom to its role, a role that engages the best we know, that embraces all those whom we should love, and that rejects simple ideas that merely reflect our own image back at us in favor of the complex inquiry that lets us find the image of God in the infinitely dense creation. To be born of God is to love the light and Logos of God. The first Epiphany of our Lord is as divine wisdom.

I invite you, therefore, to participate in a Great Awakening of wisdom. A new Great Awakening must also awaken fervor, and witness, and new direction, and new discipline, all of which I shall preach about on subsequent Sundays. But the Third Great Awakening begins with awakening wisdom, and perhaps in a university. If your mind hungers for honest truth and is offended by the simplemindedness of the theologies you have heard, come to an awakening of Christian wisdom that will unfold a more realistic, complex way. If your moral strength hungers to bring justice to a world more complex than slogans, come to an awakening of Christian wisdom that sorts that out. If your soul hungers for meaning in an age when even religion seems to be a commodity, come to an awakening of Christian wisdom that participates in the deepest mysteries. If your heart hungers to know God, and to be known by God, come to an awakening of Christian wisdom that dares to touch the unthinkable, that dares to be penetrated by the Logos of God, that dares to be vulnerable to God’s wild love, that dares the ecstasy of divine knowledge in our flesh. For, we cannot pray unless we have the thoughts with which to witness the divine immensity. The wise men witnessed the Epiphany.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville

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