July 7

Betwixt Curation and Creation

By Marsh Chapel

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Luke 10: 1-11, 16-20

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Betwixt Curation and Creation

In t’ other hundred, o’er yon swarthy moor,
Deep in the mire with tawny rush beset;
Where bleak sea-breezes echo from the shore,
And foggy damps infect the noontide heat,
There lies a Country Curate’s dismal seat:
View well those barren heaths with sober eye,
And wonder how a man can live so wretchedly.

(“The Country Curate,” Gentleman’s Magazine 7, January 1737, 52-53, stanza 1)

You are likely familiar with the verb, “to curate,” meaning “to look after and preserve” as in a museum. You may also be familiar with the more contemporary colloquial usage of the term, meaning “to select, organize, and present,” usually applied either to content, such as for a website, or to people, such as for a performance. Regardless, the activity curation describes remains relatively passive with respect to that which the curator orders. You may be less familiar with the heteronymous noun “curate,” referring to “one entrusted with the cure of souls; a spiritual pastor,” that is, a member of the clergy. (Oxford English Dictionary).

Alas, the poor priest described in the 18th century Spenserian poem, “The Country Curate,” appears doomed to conflate the two meanings:

Each sun arises in a noisome fog,
Tir’d of their beds they rise as soon as light;
With like disgust their summers on they jog,
And o’er a few stray chips their winter night:
Such is the married Essex Curate’s plight!
Tho’ seasons change, no sense of change they know,
But with a discontented eye view all things here below.

(“The Country Curate,” stanza 7)

Inheritor of tradition, the curate who curates merely looks after and preserves the faith as though the seasons do not change. Tradition, the living faith of the dead, as Jeroslav Pelikan reminds us, is given over to its poor reflection, traditionalism, that is, the dead faith of the living. (Pelikan, Jaroslav. The Vindication of Tradition. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1986). And in the end? The curate who merely curates is not even pitiable.

Still worse and worse her lashing tongue he feels,
The spurns of fortune and the weight of years:
The post-horse thus, an ancient racer, reels,
No longer now a steddy course he steers,
His knees now tremble and he hangs his ears;
He sweats, he totters, cover’d o’er with gore,
And falls unpity’d, as he liv’d before.

(“The Country Curate,” stanza 12)

The theology of curation is reflected in one of the traditional prayers for Compline, the night office that we offer here at Marsh Chapel on Monday evenings during the academic year, “that we who are wearied by the changes and chances of this life may rest in your eternal changelessness” (The Book of Common Prayer, 133). Since God is changeless, change is clearly not of God, and so the work of leadership is to simply curate unchanged the institutions and traditions we have inherited lest the faithful, and we ourselves, become weary. 

Yet, change is an enduring feature of our world, and as the curate learned, mere curation cannot enable a steady course amidst change. Wearying though change may be, attempting to deny or to resist change is at least as tiresome, and often as not tragic, as in the case of the country curate. After all, as Alfred North Whitehead reminds us, “the essence of dramatic tragedy is not unhappiness. It resides in the solemnity of the remorseless working of things” (Science and the Modern World, 13). Indeed, change is part and parcel of the working of things, and change is often solemnly remorseless in its application regardless of the predilection to deny or to inhibit it: Denying that humanity is responsible for climate change does nothing to mitigate its effects. Treating refugees as subhuman does nothing to dampen their desperation to flee. Repurposing maintenance funds does nothing for the upkeep of tracks, signals, and subway cars, making derailment inevitable. Failure to read the syllabus does not make the paper any less due.

To cope with change, creation is the proper response, rather than curation. When the traditions and institutions of the past no longer accord us with reality, we must create new ones that do. Such creative endeavor was the cause for celebration just this past week, namely, the 243rd anniversary of the passage of the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness… That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness… When a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government.”

Creation is rarely clean or clear cut. The first stab at a new government following the Declaration of Independence was the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union, which lasted a whole twelve years before being replaced by the Constitution of the United States that we know today. The need for the change is recorded in George Washington’s cover letter to the Constitution addressed to the President of Congress: “The friends of our country have long seen and desired that the power of making war, peace, and treaties, that of levying money, and regulating commerce, and the correspondent executive and judicial authorities, should be fully and effectually vested in the General Government of the Union; but the impropriety of delegating such extensive trust to one body of men is evident: hence results the necessity of a different organization.” Hence, three branches of government with attendant checks and balances among them. 

Likewise, the business world tells us of disruptive innovation, whereby an innovation creates a new market that eventually disrupts its predecessor market by providing value in a new and better way. So, Wikipedia disrupts Britannica, the word processor disrupts the typewriter, and the smartphone disrupts, well, pretty much everything, (including, I dare say, this sermon). Bringing on the new requires setting aside the old, a loss that is rarely unambiguous even when the innovation is a signal advance. Indeed, as the Declaration of Independence itself reminds us, “Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.”

For all that the curate who curates is one prevalent model for religious leaders to approach situations in flux, the mode of creation is hardly foreign to religion. Jesus and Paul were, among other things, religious innovators, in varying degrees of tensive relationship at different times with emerging rabbinic Judaism, Hellenistic philosophy and culture, the Roman Empire, and other religious movements they encountered along the way. Monasticism was a creative response to the change of Christianity from a persecuted minority to the official religion of the Empire. The Franciscans and Dominicans arose in part to reform the cloistered monasteries, and then Martin Luther set off a creative reform of all of Western Christianity. Methodism, adherents of which founded Boston University, started as a creative movement to invigorate piety within Anglicanism. Today, as the institutional dynamics of denominations provoke rampant disaffiliation, new models of spiritual engagement are emerging, from multiple religious belonging, to new monasticisms, to pub church, and more. Curation need not be the defining mark of religion. The creative spirit runs deep as well.

For the past two weeks we have drunk deeply from the wellsprings of wisdom of Dr. Robert Franklin, who professes moral leadership at Emory University in no small part on the basis of his own practice of moral leadership, especially as President each of Morehouse College and the Interdenominational Theological Center, both in Atlanta, Georgia. Dr. Franklin adjured us toward moral leadership, encouraging us to virtue and to act out of a redemptive discontent at the socio-political morass of our time such that we might come to stand above the world, that God might lift the world through us. Today I submit to you that moral leaders seek to cultivate virtue and pursue a socio-political analysis that results in redemptive discontent precisely so as to enable their discernment of the proper path forward for the traditions and institutions they lead betwixt curation and creation. Without curation there is no continuity, and without continuity there is no tradition or institution of which to speak. Without creation, however, change must inevitably overwhelm traditions and institutions, grinding them into dust and casting them off onto the slaughter-bench of history. The moral leader must harness each, curation and creation, as the situation at hand demands.

The understanding of moral leadership that we inherit from ancient China helps us to gain perspective on the role and efficacy of moral leaders. It does so by situating leadership in the wider frame of not only the traditions and institutions in which leadership is expressed, but indeed the whole cosmic order. Traditions and institutions are understood as rituals, rites, or rules of ceremony. Rites are much more than church services. They are any and all conventional behaviors patterned so as to harmonize those related by them with one another and with everything else in the world. So the 27th section of the “Li Yun” chapter of the Liji, the Classic of Rites:

From all this it follows that rules of ceremony must be traced to their origin in the Grand Unity. This separated and became heaven and earth. It revolved and became the dual force (in nature). It changed and became the four seasons. It was distributed and became the breathings (thrilling in the universal frame). Its (lessons) transmitted (to men) are called its orders; the law and authority of them is in Heaven. While the rules of ceremony have their origin in heaven, the movement of them reaches to earth. The distribution of them extends to all the business (of life). They change with the seasons; they agree in reference to the (variations of) lot and condition. In regard to man, they serve to nurture (his nature). They are practiced by means of offerings, acts of strength, words and postures of courtesy, in eating and drinking, in the observances of capping, marriage, mourning, sacrificing, archery, chariot-driving, audiences, and friendly missions. 

(Legge, James, trans. The Sacred Books of China: The Texts of Confucianism Part III. Vol. 3. The Sacred Books of the East 27. Oxford, UK: Clarendon, 1885).

Notably, rituals are not static. Their movement “reaches to the earth” from heaven. “They change with the seasons.” When things change, they change to accord with the new situation. 

Even though they may change, tending to rituals, to the patterns that guide our interactions and relationships, is important precisely because, as the 28th section goes on to say:

They supply the channels by which we can apprehend the ways of Heaven and act as the feelings of men require. It was on this account that the sages knew that the rules of ceremony could not be dispensed with, while the ruin of states, the destruction of families, and the perishing of individuals are always preceded by their abandonment of the rules of propriety.

Traditions and institutions may only ever be relatively reliable, but life without them devolves quickly into the state of nature described by Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan: “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” (chap. 13). Hence the conclusion arrived at in the 29th section of the “Li Yun” chapter of the Liji:

Thus, rules of ceremony are the embodied expression of what is right. If an observance stand the test of being judged by the standard of what is right, although it may not have been among the usages of the ancient kings, it may be adopted on the ground of its being right. (The idea of) right makes the distinction between things, and serves to regulate (the manifestation of) humanity.

What then of moral leadership? One of the primary virtues cultivated by moral leaders is 義 yi, which means rightness, righteousness, or appropriateness. Rituals are expressions of what is right, and moral leadership determines whether or not a particular ritual is in fact such an expression of righteousness. Rituals that do in fact express right merely need to be curated. Rituals that do not may need some creative reformation or transformation. And it is surely conceivable that a situation might arise for which no extant ritual would be appropriate, and so a moral leader would have to create one wholesale from scratch. Most of the time, however, moral leadership has to do principally with the subtle art of negotiating the tension between curation and creation in order to cultivate rituals, traditions, and institutions that facilitate righteousness and harmony.

All well and good as far as a theory of moral leadership goes, but a few examples would certainly not go amiss at this point. Surely, the Liji is replete with plenty of excellent examples, but rather than take the time to explain who Yu, Tang, Wen, Wu, King Cheng, and the Duke of Zhou are such that the examples might make any sense, it may be helpful to turn to some more familiar texts.

Consider, then, the moral leadership of the prophet Elisha as he responds to the arrival of Naaman, the commander of the army of the king of Aram:

Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man and in high favor with his master, because by him the Lord had given victory to Aram. The man, though a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy. Now the Arameans on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. She said to her mistress, “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.” So Naaman went in and told his lord just what the girl from the land of Israel had said. And the king of Aram said, “Go then, and I will send along a letter to the king of Israel.” He went, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments. He brought the letter to the king of Israel, which read, “When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you my servant Naaman, that you may cure him of his leprosy.” When the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, “Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me.” But when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent a message to the king, “Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel.”

So Naaman came with his horses and chariots, and halted at the entrance of Elisha’s house. Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.” But Naaman became angry and went away, saying, “I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy! Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?” He turned and went away in a rage. But his servants approached and said to him, “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, ‘Wash, and be clean’?” So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean. 

(2 Kings 5: 1-14, NRSV).

It is little wonder that the king of Israel suspects a nefarious plot. Curing leprosy is no small thing, and the king of Aram has neglected, in his letter, to mention that he has insider information that such healing might be accomplished in Israel. The king of Israel is left to suspect that the king of Aram is attempting to provoke a conflict on the basis of the king of Israel refusing to heal the commander of the army of the king of Aram.

Enter Elisha, stage left. As a moral leader, which is what a prophet is, after all, Elisha seeks the way of righteousness. It would be reasonable to assume that healing by a prophet in Israel would be reserved for Israelites, for the followers of Yahweh, the God of Israel, and thus unavailable to inhabitants of other realms who practice other cults. In offering to heal Naaman, Elisha is defying this expectation, expanding the tradition of Israelite religion, and by proxy the institution of the kingdom of Israel as constituted by those who profess faith in Yahweh, to include any who would demonstrate such faith by following his instructions.

Elisha is clearly closer to curation than creation. He only moves the line so far. He never even speaks to Naaman directly, sending a messenger instead. His instructions remain within the realm of Israelite rituals of healing, namely, washing in the Jordan. No, the rivers of Damascus will not, in fact, do. Yet, if he is willing, Naaman may be made clean, may be healed, may be included. The creativity Elisha expresses is simply to practice a more generous hospitality than might have been expected. The tradition as it stood was inappropriate to this new situation and had to be expanded. His is the creativity of redrawing the boundaries of the tradition and the institution so as to enact what Second Isaiah would later also encourage:

Enlarge the site of your tent,
   and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out;
do not hold back; lengthen your cords
   and strengthen your stakes. 
For you will spread out to the right and to the left,
   and your descendants will possess the nations
   and will settle the desolate towns. (Isaiah 54: 2-3, NRSV)

So, too, consider the moral leadership of Saint Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, as expressed in his letter to the Galatians:

My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness. Take care that you yourselves are not tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ. For if those who are nothing think they are something, they deceive themselves. All must test their own work; then that work, rather than their neighbor’s work, will become a cause for pride. For all must carry their own loads.

Those who are taught the word must share in all good things with their teacher.

Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow. If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit. So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up. So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith. 

See what large letters I make when I am writing in my own hand! It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh that try to compel you to be circumcised—only that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. Even the circumcised do not themselves obey the law, but they want you to be circumcised so that they may boast about your flesh. May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything! As for those who will follow this rule—peace be upon them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God. (Galatians 6: 1-16, NRSV).

Here we see Paul navigating a number of ritual frames in order to achieve the delicate balance of righteousness. In the rhetoric of flesh and spirit we hear the backdrop of Hellenistic thought that set the terms for conceptualizing the spiritual life in the communities where Paul ministered. So too we hear Paul articulating boundaries between those who follow his teaching and those who follow the teachings of others: “Those who are taught the word must share in all good things with their teacher.”

One of the teachings that others who have encountered the Galatians have apparently been insisting upon is the ritual requirement of circumcision. On one hand, Paul has a rather sophisticated theological argument for why circumcision, while not necessarily objectionable, is neither at all necessary. What is necessary? Becoming a new spiritual creation by spiritual crucifixion with Christ to the world. On the other hand, it is hard to imagine that Paul needed to work terribly hard to convince, say, about half of the church in Galatia that circumcision was not really necessary.

Here then we have a far more creative, and less curatorial, approach to tradition and institution. Paul is renegotiating boundaries, breaking down boundaries between Jews and gentiles in Christ, even while raising boundaries between followers of his teaching and followers of the teaching of others. Paul swings the pendulum to a midpoint between curation and creation because he needs to for the sake of appropriateness. What was good for Jews in Jerusalem would not necessarily work well – politically, culturally, or practically – for the non-Jewish Christians to whom God called him to minister. Paul had to curate the heart of the gospel that he had received and creatively incarnate it in the soil to which he was sent, where curation alone would surely not do. Indeed, that Christianity endures today is largely a testament to the curation of the church through creative moral leadership by Paul.

Paul is great and all, but what of Jesus? Jesus, it seems, could find precious little worth curating amongst the traditions and institutions of the religion of his day. The apocalyptic frame of the gospels is quite strange to us, driving as it does a sense of urgency that seems to have failed to bear out some two thousand years later. Yet it is that very urgency that presses Jesus to abandon the traditions and institutions he inherited and instead send his followers out to effectively start anew.

Jesus erects clear boundaries, in Luke’s gospel, between his own movement and the religious institutions of his day. When Jesus denounces the Pharisees, the lawyers whine, “Teacher, when you say these things, you insult us too,” to which Jesus replies, “Woe also to you lawyers!” (Luke 11: 45-46, NRSV). Jesus is clear also that each and every person must choose to situate themselves on one side of the boundary or the other. “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” (Luke 12: 51, NRSV).

Far more interesting than how he goes about creating barriers against existing institutions is how Jesus goes about creating his own movement. Jesus himself may not have come to bring peace, but peace is precisely what Jesus sends his followers out to announce: “Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’” (Luke 10: 5, NRSV). The mission of the seventy is a mission of movement building. It is deeply relational: person by person, household by household, town by town. It is the harvesting, the calling together of a community built on righteousness, that is, on peace, hospitality, justice, and the grace of God. For those that share in peace, well and good, and for those that do not, wipe off the dust from your feet and move on.

At times, moral leaders may find that there is so little rightness left in the traditions and institutions they inherit that they must cast them off and create new traditions and institutions from neigh on whole cloth. Doing so is precarious, as the authors of the Declaration of Independence note and as those who call for such revolutionary changes demonstrate, figures like Jesus, Gandhi, and Martin King, as their acts of institutional rejection and new creation result in their deaths. Important to remember is that this extremity of creation is not a foregone conclusion embraced from the start, but rather a necessity that arises for the sake of rightness, of righteousness, of appropriateness. The moral of the story for moral leaders is not that new traditions and institutions are always necessary, but rather that strategies of curation, reformation, renewal, transformation, or recreation must be judiciously selected for the sake of traditions and institutions being able to effectively harmonize us with one another and the world. Moral leadership of traditions and institutions is the discernment of appropriateness between curation and creation. Cultivate, then, the virtue of appropriateness, of rightness, of righteousness so that you may be a moral leader, that God may lift the world up through you, just as God has lifted the world through Elisha, Paul, and Jesus.

Let us stand, then, as we are able, for the reading of the gospel.

After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, “Peace to this house!” And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.” But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, “Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.”

‘Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.’

The seventy returned with joy, saying, ‘Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!’ He said to them, ‘I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.’ (Luke 10: 1-11, 16-20, NRSV).


-Br. Lawrence Whitney, PhD, LC+

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