Monday, November 18, 2013

Sermon: "Putting Away Childish Things" (Delivered 11-17-13)

From Marilynne Robinson’s essay “Cosmology,” in When I Was a Child I Read Books.

I want to pose [an] ancient question, one we seem to have set aside in the last few generations, for all the world as if we knew the answer to it.  What are we, after all, we human beings?  It has been usual for at least a century and a half to think of human beings as primates, as we surely are, who developed certain traits that eventuated in a capacity for complex social life…

At present, evolution is taken to have been propelled, in us as in all life, by something called genetic “selfishness,” which its proponents always assure us does not mean selfishness in the ordinary sense of the word, but which, extrapolated and applied, means this more or less exactly…

The embrace of essential beastliness, made scientific and respectable by a reading of Darwin that may or may not have done justice to his intentions, thrilled and enthralled Western thought in certain quarters and in fact still does enthrall persons and groups who experience life in society as a barely tolerable constraint on a kind of freedom they consider a birthright.  This freedom appears to have most of the essential features of a war of each against all, whether a hot war that compels them to go armed to Starbucks or to church or a cold war that makes a virtue of craftiness and guile, the ability to loot and wreck the national economy without getting caught…

All this came up recently in a writing class when I asked the students to describe their assumptions about human motivation.  It became clear that a number of them took for granted that the substratum of all behavior was self-interest, this understood as gratification of certain of those same uncountenanced impulses Freud had in mind.  Now, my students are excellent, large-spirited people, really exemplary.  There is no reason to suppose that either reflection or experience would have led them to so dark a view of their kind.  But this notion of human nature was taught to them as true and, good students that most of them are, they have accepted as true.  And it has had significant consequences for their fiction.  Specifically, characters they understand to be outside the effective range of social formation tend to gratify uncountenanced impulses with a high degree of predictability.  And, true to the Freudian paradigm, highly socialized, which is to say middle-class, characters tend to dwell in the moral twilight of essentially contentless decency, which they frequently depart from in search of a truer self.

At either end of this very short spectrum we find persons understood as having radically limited self-awareness, a minimum of meaningful inwardness, [and] very little real ability to choose or appraise their actions.  In other words, they have little true individuality – that is, character.

Our daughter Lydia has come into the age where few activities are as exciting as taking things down off the shelves, or out of cabinets, or out of boxes.  Turn your back for a moment and she’s standing in front of a bookshelf with a growing pile of books by her feet.  Or the kitchen floor is covered with pots and pans.  Or the box of toys has been emptied in the middle of the living room with plastic and plush playthings scattered all about.

One night, before going to bed, I surveyed the mess of toys in the living room and said to myself, “It’s time to put away childish things.”  And, then I said to myself, “Isn’t that a verse from the Bible?”  And, indeed, it was.

The line comes from the New Testament, from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.  This morning I’m going to teach a little bit about this passage, and then I’m going to ask that we apply this teaching to our own lives and see whether or not “putting away childish things” is a spiritual idea that might speak to our lives here and now.

1 Corinthians is one of 21 letters sent by Paul or others to communities of Jesus’ followers around the ancient Mediterranean world.  These letters do many things.  They offer encouragement.  They clarify teachings.  They offer instruction.  And, they attempt to reconcile disputes and disagreements.  The letters are challenging for several reasons.  For one thing, most of the time we only get to read one side of the conversation.  We are told the answers, but we don’t always know the questions.  For another thing, sometimes the answers seem unclear or convoluted.  And, for a third thing, in our Unitarian Universalist tradition we accept the distinct possibility that Paul may be wrong and that the advice he gives may be bad advice.

In 1 Corinthians 12 Paul spends a lot of time writing about the values of different spiritual gifts, the different abilities of the different people who constitute the religious community.  Some of these spiritual gifts will sound very foreign to some of us.  Paul describes the gift of wise speech, the gift of being able to teach knowledge, the gift of ecstatic speech or speaking in tongues, the gift of being able to interpret another’s ecstatic speech, the gift of healing, the gift of performing other sorts of miracles, the gift of dreaming visions, and the gift of discernment between true spirits and false.  This is a pretty wild community he’s describing.  And, we can infer from Paul’s letter that there is an authority struggle taking place in this community.  Whose gifts are more important?  Whose gifts give them authority over others?  Should the community at Corinth follow the one who can speak in tongues or the one who dreams the visions?

In 1 Corinthians 13 Paul offers a solution to this impasse, writing, "And I will show you a still more excellent way."  “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.”  The community should be led by love.
What follows is a passage that you may be familiar with because it is a passage that is frequently read at weddings.  “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.”  It’s kind of interesting that one of the most common passages read at weddings is actually a passage about resolving disputes about ecclesiastical authority.  How romantic!  [Following the service, a member of the congregation told me that when she and her sister fought as children, their mother made them read 1 Corinthians 13 to each other until they made up!]

What comes next is, I think, one of the most gorgeous passages ever written, “For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put away childish things. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

1 Corinthians 13 seems to say that the person who embodies love possesses a core spiritual gift.  Love leads to good relationships with others.  And, love will lead us in the direction of wholeness rather than partiality.

So, that’s pretty much what I want to say about the first epistle to the Corinthians.  Now, I want to talk about putting away childish things.  Let me tell you what this phrase doesn’t mean to me.  Putting away childish things doesn’t mean doing away with laughter or doing away with wonder or doing away with playfulness or doing away with lighthearted silliness.  Let me be clear, putting away childish things does not mean having to adopt some kind of ultra-serious, stern, and humorless demeanor.  I’m not talking about becoming joyless.

The other day I actually asked a group of my colleagues this question:  “You know that passage in First Corinthians chapter 13 about putting away childish things?” I asked.  “What sorts of childish things can you think of that should be put away?”  The responses I received were fascinating:

“The need for immediate gratification.”

“Taking yourself too seriously.”

“Fear of difference.”

“Blaming behavior.”

“Cliquish behavior.”

“Theological trivialities.”

“The belief that I occupy the center of the universe.”

I thought these responses were pretty interesting.  They were especially interesting to me for two reasons.  One reason was that I could totally imagine the ancient church of Corinth, as they fought with each other over whose spiritual gifts were superior, engaging in some of those behaviors that my colleagues identified as childish.  I could imagine cliquish behavior by those with the power to heal or those with the ability speak in tongues.  I could imagine the visionary prophets taking themselves far too seriously.  I could imagine these people having disputes over theological trivialities.

The other thing that I found really interesting is that all of these childish things have to do with being focused on the partial at the expense of the complete.  Fear of difference and cliquishness are behaviors that elevate the partial over the complete; these behaviors fail to imagine the whole of humankind as complete.  Desiring immediate gratification can be described as a failure to see the completeness of time, as if right now is the only time that matters.  Theological trivialities miss the forest for the trees.  Blaming is a failure to see one’s own relatedness, one’s own connectedness, to all.  “When the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.”

I think my colleague who wrote about putting away the childish idea “that I occupy the center of the universe” came closest to that idea of the difference between knowing in part and knowing fully.  Copernicus and Galileo taught us not to see ourselves as existing at the center of the solar system.  Paul, at least in this particular passage, seems to be teaching the radical idea that other people exist, and that they matter.  Love decenters us from the idea that we are the center of the universe.

My colleague’s comment about the childish notion of believing that you are the center of the universe reminded me of something that the author David Foster Wallace once wrote.  He wrote, “Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness because it's so socially repulsive. But it's pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute center of.”

It also reminds me of what Marilynne Robinson writes in her essay “Cosmology.”  In this essay she takes issue with overly simplistic, overly deterministic concepts of human nature.  She rejects the idea, say, that all human behavior can be explained by virtue of genetic selfishness or Freudian id, or what have you.  (She would also reject David Foster Wallace’s assertion that self-centeredness is our hard-wired, default setting.)  She rejects the one dimensional motivations that her students ascribe to their characters.  She rejects these ideas because they mistake the part for the whole.  Their ideas about how human beings exist in the world are incredibly partial; they’re incomplete.

I come back to the image of our daughter in the center of the galaxy of our living room, in the center of a constellation of toys, in the center of her own universe.  Developmentally, this extreme self-centeredness is completely appropriate.  She’s only one year old, after all.  At some point, though, this narcissism will no longer be socially acceptable, but that’s still a ways off.  We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.  At some point, my poor child will probably resent being used as a sermon illustration, but that’s still a ways off, too.

So for us, what would it mean to put away childish things?  I leave it up to you to ask of yourself, when have you made yourself the center of your own universe?  When have you focused on the partial at the expense of the complete?  What are we, after all, we human beings?

Let us be defined, not by self-interest, but by a love that is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude, that does not insist on its own way.  May we seek to know fully just as we seek to be fully known.  Amen.