Friday, January 23, 2015

Too heavenly minded?

     Oliver Wendell Holmes (Sr? Jr?) reputedly said, "Some people are so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good."*  This quotation often seems to be trotted out by folks who disagree with religionists who seem to be more concerned about the next, or after-, life than they are with the material realities of THIS world -- whether those concerns be the environment, or hunger/poverty, or peace-related issues.  And in a certain sense, I would agree with that critique.
     That quotation came to mind, however, as I was reading a passage from the Hebrew prophet Isaiah:

I did not speak in secret,
in a land of darkness;
I did not say to the offspring of Jacob,
“Seek me in chaos.”
I the LORD speak the truth,
I declare what is right. (45.19, NRSV)

Other translations replace the word "chaos" with "heavens" or "empty waste".  Regardless of translation, the implication is that finding God does NOT necessitate looking very far.
       Much of the book of Isaiah -- indeed, much of the Hebrew Bible -- rails against those who would find some natural phenomenon/creature (an animal or some heavenly body) and attribute to it the status of divinity.  "Idols" -- crafted by human hands to represent those non-human figures -- are constantly derided by the biblical writers.  And, while I think a lot of the biblical rhetoric about "idols" is a bit over-drawn, the message behind it is pretty clear:  "Focus on the matters at hand!  Tend to justice-making!  Defend the powerless!  Do not cheat your fellows! Do NOT think that by focusing on some astral body, you'll be honoring ME!"
       I have great respect for those scientists and theologians who work to reconcile "differences" between scientific and religious claims; I have several friends who engage in that endeavor. I also have great respect for those who spend their time thinking through thorny theological/philosophical issues; trying to make sense of the conundrums of our human existence and the ways we understand divinity is important work. We all want answers to these hard questions, and I am grateful to those who would seek to answer them.  But then I run into the words of Isaiah and other biblical writers who force us to return to our chief responsibility to tend to physical, human, needs right here and now.
       I am writing from the University of Denver, where, this week, we began by honoring the legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Many students joined the "Marade" in downtown Denver that marks the MLK Holiday.  Today, Friday the 23rd, DU holds its annual Diversity Summit, in recognition that we (as a university and a society) are better when we link hands, hearts and minds across all manners of difference -- but also that there is much to do to make that dream a reality. The movie "Selma" is a box-office success, reminding all of us of the passion of early Civil Rights leaders, but also pushing us to remember the multi-religious impulses and convictions that lay behind that march.  As a nation, we are gripped by discussions about what we need to do to prevent more tragedies such as those that occurred in Ferguson or Staten Island.
      This work -- this justice-seeking work -- is, as Isaiah preaches, the search for God.  But it also reflects God's own intentions for the world:  that it be a place where people respect one another, and care for those who are marginalized.  It is the making real of the phrase from the prayer Jesus taught his followers:  "You kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven."


*I was able to find all sorts of attributions, but no direct citations.

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