Saturday, January 23, 2016

January 24, Epiphany 3, Worldview #3, What Your Mind Is For

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10, Psalm 19, 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a, Luke 4:14-21

When I used to visit nursing homes, my elderly congregants would typically say, “Well, at least I have my mind.” Even if they were frail or disabled, they would say, “At least I have my mind.” To lose your mind is a fearful thing: dementia, mental illness. Scientifically speaking, we have not yet defined the mind, or its exact relation to the brain, but it is apparent that the human brain has evolved such that it requires a mind to inhabit it for the general health of the body as a whole.

The human mind is a great achievement in evolution. Some secular scientists say that the human mind is the universe’s strategy for beholding itself. Other animals seem to have minds, they are obviously aware, but the human mind raises consciousness to the level of self-awareness, of abstraction, and of imagination, and imagination is necessary for freedom.

No other animals operate with such freedom in the world. Lions always act like lions and apes always act like apes. It’s only humans who can choose to act with inhumanity. And so the human mind is also the laboratory of so much evil in the world. Some folks think that the animals are better off for not having minds.

Melody and I are watching the HBO series True Detective. It stars Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey as two compromised detectives in Louisiana. If the story is gruesome, the dialogue is brilliant. They often talk in the car, and McConaughey’s character tells Harrelson’s character that humanity is a great biological mistake.

He says: “I think human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution. We became too self-aware, nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself, we are creatures that should not exist by natural law. We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self; an accretion of sensory experience and feeling, programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody, when in fact everybody is nobody. Maybe the honorable thing for our species to do is deny our programming, stop reproducing, walk hand in hand into extinction, one last midnight — brothers and sisters opting out of a raw deal.”

That’s close to the notorious Calvinist doctrine of Total Depravity, only it’s Calvinism absent God. Well, Jean-Paul Sartre recognized eighty years ago this is where atheism ends up if you take it to its full conclusion, or else you end up like Harrelson’s character, submitting your freedom to the comfort and pleasures of materialism as long as you can hold off your frailty or death or dementia.

The Christian claim is that the human mind has evolved for God and for beholding God. Yes, our minds are for our own freedom and imaginations, but ultimately we have them to enable us to receive the Word of God. John Calvin taught that human beings need a double knowledge: the knowledge of God and the knowledge of your selves, and you get the true knowledge of your selves from your ongoing conversation with God, and from the Word of God you gain the right use of your freedom and imaginations, and the right employment and enjoyment of your minds.

We cannot separate the evolution of the mind from the evolution of language. We are told that chimpanzees share almost 99% of our DNA, and yet they cannot talk. They don’t come close. On their own they have no use for words. Neither does any primate or any other mammal. It’s only parrots who mimic human speech, but no parrot has ever taught a human to talk. That we humans are able to make a very few animals in limited ways share in human language does not counter the reality that speech and words and language are remarkably distinct to our own species in all the world.

I am told that in Morocco, among Muslims, at the birth of a newborn, the imam comes to the house and whispers this into the baby’s ear: “La ilaha illallah, Muhammadur rasulallah.” It’s the Muslim creed: “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is God’s prophet.” The whispering is to plant that early in the baby’s mind.

Muslims agree with Jews and Christians that while your mind is good for many things, your ultimate good is to know God. Muslim agree with Jews and Christians that while the dealings of God with us are many and varied, God prefers to deal with us through speech, the Word, the conversation, in your understanding, and so, your mind is for God.

All religions have talking gods, and all religions have holy books, but Jews, Christians, and Muslims agree that the Torah and the Bible and the Qur’an are designed for reading aloud to the gathered community as public truth. Private reading is good, but the public reading is primary. Just our hearing it together converts us from a crowd into a community.

You see this in our first reading, from Nehemiah. The public listening to the Torah turned the crowd into what they were supposed to be, the human beings of God. By it they knew God and also themselves, their story, their calling and their destiny, their failures and their hopes, who they really were, and it’s no wonder that they wept.

The Word of God is not just information, but also emotion, encouragement, inspiration, and imagination, and there are promises embedded in every line that you hear. Jews and Christians agree that God is a promise-maker, and promises require words. These promises are the object of your faith, and so faith requires understanding.

God deals with you in this way for two purposes: to keep you in relationship with God and also to set you free to be creative in yourself, for you to use your gifts and to add your own contributions to the world, and for you to enrich the world and open up its latent possibilities. Your mind is for God so that your mind may be for the world with God.

Nehemiah illustrates what we take for granted, that the reading and hearing of the Word of God is an act of worship. It’s worship because we try to believe that we are hearing together is not just words about God, but the Word of God. God is present in the words. God comes among us in the words. Into the temple of your understanding God comes to you and God is present with you.

Now here is where Christians depart from Jews, and Muslims too — in our gospel lesson. Here is where Jesus of Nazareth says that all the promises which God made to Israel have been fulfilled in him, which means that all the conversations between God and humanity are now anchored in this one man. In the synagogue he reads God’s Word from Isaiah, and he says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” If you read the following verses you learn that at first they all admire him but by the end of the scene they try to bump him off, literally over a cliff, but he escapes.

Who does he think he is? Jesus seems to hijack the whole conversation of God with Israel. Jesus comes onto the Jewish scene like Donald Trump among the Republicans, upsetting all their plans, and the establishment fears he will ruin them all. Some of you might rather I compared him to Bernie Sanders against the Democratic establishment, but Bernie Sanders doesn’t go around saying, “It is I, I’m the one, follow me” like Jesus did. Jesus does this very strange thing of putting himself in the middle of the ancient conversation of the Word of God.

There is so much to say about this. But my point today is that the goal of the great conversation is not the information but your relationship with that holy person at the center of the conversation. You have a mind for understanding and what your understanding serves is the fullness of your love. You can never understand God completely, but you can understand enough of God, and you can be certain that God loves to be known by your mind, and also that in loving God your mind can know yourself, and your mind can behold with joy the universe that God made, for God is love.

Copyright © 2016, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

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