Our Age of Enormity

My speech this afternoon is called “Our Age of Enormity”. I wish I had a better word, a better superlative than enormity, but I can’t think of one. What I want to say is, we live in a time of enormity. And the church is operating on a little, pea-shooter basis in contrast to what is going on in our world. What I am going to take a look at is how that unfolds and what might we do so that the church’s vision is as enormous as the times in which we live.

Cosmic Enormity

Let me start by getting a handle on this age of enormity by talking about the cosmic or universal enormity and by asking you to picture a sign that all of you are all familiar with, namely the Sherwin Williams paint sign. It is a big paint bucket, pouring down paint, which is oozing over our entire planet. The slogan is, “Cover the earth.” What I am going to talk about are different things that have covered the earth. I did a little calculation, and I figure that the diameter of the planet is roughly 6,000 miles, so the paint bucket would be roughly 2,000 miles in diameter. As the paint pours out, the wall of paint coming down over us would be 128 miles high. The reason I mention this is the feeling that I have about our role and what’s happening in the world today. If you walked out and looked up, and there was an open paint bucket pouring paint out — the bucket being 2,000 miles across and the wall of paint 128 miles high — you would know what it feels like for me to be a human being abiding in the world today. One of the reasons I get so darn mad at the church is not because the church is so terribly bad but because it is so out of touch with this kind of Sherwin Williams world.

Picking up on the first area of enormity, the cosmic or universal enormity, I go to Teilhard de Chardin, who said that there are three astonishing things that have happened in this universe. The first astonishing thing is that there is a planet with an atmosphere. As far as we know, this is the only planet in this endless universe where you can light a match and it will burn. You can’t light a match anywhere else in the universe. This planet has an atmosphere that supports life. The second thing to cover the earth is the biosphere: the sphere of life, planet and animal life, developing slowly. The third huge thing is what he calls the “noos” sphere, as in the Greek word for mind or spirit. Covering this earth, this unique planet, is an inner, relating consciousness that is no where else in the universe. It is only in the last fifty years that this consciousness has been making complete its covering of the earth and becoming interconnected. It might be that it’s only in the last twenty years, with the coming of the Internet, that we have really completed this interconnection. This is an astonishing thing, unique to our planet so far as we know.

Historic Enormity

The second area of enormity is what I call historic enormity. We are in our third consecutive century of revolution. The 18th century was a century of political revolution, such as the French Revolution and the American experiment. The great human groan was about the political process. The 19th century, the second century of revolution, brought about the economic revolution. The great human groan was about the economic destiny of the planet. The groan came out in such ways as the Industrial Revolution and Marxism. The American Civil War to a great extent was an expression of it, and so was the 19th century American expansion — or conquest, if you are speaking from the standpoint of the Native American. Now we are in the 20th century, our time of historic enormity, the third century of revolution in the world. Our revolution today is a cultural and spiritual revolution. The great human groan is about meaning, value, and community, or the lack of them. Meaning, value, and community are the heart of the spirit. That is what this century is about.

Spiritual Enormity

Category number three is spiritual enormity, which is captured by three words: doom, possibility, and overwhelm. “Doom.” If you are not geared into doom, you are living in some other time and disobedient to God. You have to know doom, and you have to be connected to doom, or you are (pardon me) out of touch with reality or crazy. The second word is “possibility”. If you take the first two together, of course the third is “overwhelm”.

Now to define doom: doom is the symbol for the breakdown of the idea of inevitable progress, which we were born into at the turn of this century. Everything by our own jiggling was going to get better and better and better — social Darwinism, don’t you see. The enlightenment — reason, rationality — was going to save us. Education was going to save us, to create a new world. Secular salvation. Remember Voltaire’s neat little one liner: “Mankind will truly be happy and free only when the last king is throttled with a noose made from the entrails of the last priest.” I like that; I kind of agree with it, too. The atomic bomb brought rationality to a screeching halt. You want rationality, how about the Manhattan project? That’s rationality. That’s rationality gone insane, but it is rationality.

Possibility. Here I have a picture you can’t see, but I am going to show it to you anyway and brag on it. This is a picture of the first automobile in the state of Texas. It was made in the year 1902, six years after Henry Ford’s automobile, and it was made by my great-uncle Emil in Lockhart, Texas. Here is his picture. He had a shotgun barrel for the tiller on this thing. This picture represents for me what I am talking about, my possibility. Think of what has happened in this one dimension of human endeavor, transportation in this century. You know transportation as possibility. It is possibility oozing out over everything.

The third category is overwhelm, because overwhelm is the obvious contradiction between doom and possibility. How do we relate doom to possibility, emotionally? How do we deal with the contradiction structurally as a civilization? How does mother church deal with it? People in the church would rather talk about homosexuals or something like that. Look here: tremendous contradiction. The head shrinks tell us that one of the basic human needs is a sense of control. Whatever our century is about, it says, “Out of control.” You know what a need for control does to people. A woman is being married to some guy who gives her a beautiful de Beers diamond ring, and he asks, “Honey, do you like it?” “Oh yes, let’s see it.” Then, while she is admiring her ring and trying to figure out how to be with this guy, he just slaps the hell out of her. This is the way it is in the 20th century. What do you do with all of this? It is like being handcuffed to King Kong during mating season. Wherever he’s going, you’re going, too.

The Pea Shooter Church

Now we get into some sad material. In this age of enormity we have the little pea-shooter institutional church — what I call paint-by-the-numbers churchanity. In some groups they say, “Father Seeliger, what do you mean by churchanity?” You all know what churchanity means: something around church that is opposed to Christianity. We can look at some of the signs of the pea-shooter perversion and see what it would mean to give in to the opposite of the pea-shooter focus: to have an enormous response to God and to the world on behalf of the church.

One sign of the pea-shooter perversion is individualism. In how many conversations will someone tell you, “What it all boils down to is, if you died tonight, would you go to heaven?” As opposed to individualism what we need are planetary communities. We are not ready for this at the ice house, or at the American Legion, or in the House of Bishops, but this is what we need to be thinking about — our Ozzie and Harriet morality, the world viewed through the lens of Norman Rockwell. In the church, the big moral issue is sex before marriage or Leviticus. Isn’t this funny? God, I mean this is how bad it is: we have bishops reading Leviticus. Before this century, they didn’t even know there was a Leviticus.

As opposed to the Ozzie and Harriet morality, what we need is systemic, comprehensive, radical care. That’s what morality needs to be about, instead of institutionalism, which is opposed to the notion of a servant church. The church should not be this eighteen wheeler up on blocks with its wheels off the ground spinning around but a slim community focused on the needs of the world and on being a servant. Elitism is the pea-shooter perversion as opposed to inclusive humility. That’s a good phrase: “inclusive humility”. That is what we need to manifest care individually and as the institutional church.

Let me give you a quick case study. Take for example the way the church in general has responded to the educational challenge of our time by building super, parochial schools instead of addressing itself to excellence in public education. A lot of this happened around 1954. Out in the suburbs we decided that we needed to have some really fine schools. We created some really fine schools. All of the denominations did it. What can anybody have against that? You create liberal-minded, open-spirited little monsters running around here and then going off to Harvard and Yale. You ask, “How could anybody object to this beautiful school in this idyllic setting, an Episcopal high school where your kids won’t get stabbed? What do you have against that?” Well, nothing in and of itself, but what could we have done in 1954 if the church leadership and the big money guys had gotten together and said, “Look. Instead of building all of these wonderful opportunities for our wonderful kids, plus a few little black children and few poor kids to look good on paper, suppose we address ourselves communally to what it would mean to have every child in Houston, Texas, and every child in the nation get a first rate education.” Education for everyone and not just for a few illustrates some of the shifts I am talking about with a concern for the planetary community — systemic, comprehensive, radical care.

A servant church serves whom? The people who go there? No, it serves of the world, with inclusive humility rather than elitism. Servant churches are not atheological churches, as in amoral or asexual. An atheological approach is not bad theology; it is not theology at all. You just don’t engage in the process of dishing up canned answers from different pages, instead of engaging in the ongoing process of theological reflection. The irony is that we live in the golden age of religious reflection. It’s never been any better than this in the two-thousand-year history of the church. It is hard to imagine it getting even better than this, but it will. Enormous things are going on in God’s creation, but the church offers tribalism, the pea-shooter perversion instead of planetary consciousness.

Enormous Treasures

Now, I want to shift gears and talk about enormous Christian spiritual treasures. While I am aware of the pea-shooter perversions and some of our secular salvation schemes, every day I am also aware of the enormous treasures of the Christian tradition.

One example: the New Age. You know that talk about “the God within”. I like the traditional Christian emphasis on the otherness and the transcendence of God. I just get hungry for some of that kind of talk. We always have to hold the tension in the Christian faith between the transcendence of God and the imminence of God. Which is it, neither of the above? It’s both-and. It always has to be both-and. Here is one of my favorite quotes. It is from Schubert Ogden: “The transcendence of God is his universal imminence.” Now that is one for the refrigerator. God is above us, beyond us, over us, and over there. I mean he is not just another one of us. The way that God transcends us is that our capacity for intimacy and relatedness is pitifully limited. God’s transcendence is not, because it is universal.

Number two: the world as an illusion. I am in favor of a dialogue with the Eastern religious tradition, but one of the things that really helps me appreciate Christianity is their focus on the world as illusion. In contrast to that, our Christian tradition focuses on the essential goodness of creation, nature, and history. I will stand on that until my dying day. Cows are loved by Hindus because they are gods. We love cows because they are cows. One of the terrible things in life is to be loved for the wrong reason. If you were to go around talking about how wonderful Wes Seeliger is because he is so short, I would take great offense. If I were a cow, I would rather be loved for being a cow than for being a god in disguise.

Third: triumphalism versus redemptive suffering. I am talking about silly, religious happiness. I am so sick of silly, religious happiness! By that I mean something akin to what I ran into with my granddaughter who insisted we go to the Houston Rodeo. We went to all the rides, and she said, “Granddaddy, will you buy me some cotton candy?” So we ate some of yesterday’s pink cotton candy. And then she wanted to get on the Tilt-A-Whirl. I had all that sugar candy. Then we were spinning around. She was telling me how much fun she was having, and I was trying to keep from throwing up. This is what it is like to listen to these sermons — “The Three Steps to Triumphant Living” or “The Four Secrets of Radiant Christian Faith”. You know that kind of stuff. Thank God for Ash Wednesday. I would be the greatest preacher in the Anglican communion if every day were Ash Wednesday. If I could get the Houston religious community any gift, it would not be Bishop Spong for an hour a day on prime time TV. That would be the second thing I would do. The thing I want to do even more than that is to go over to St. Anne’s Roman Catholic Church right here at Westheimer and Shepherd and take down their crucifix. They have the best crucifix in town. It is life size, and Jesus is not enjoying it. I would like to get that thing and make copies of it. If I could do anything in the world to renew the church in Houston, I would make every congregation in this city put that crucifix in front of its church for one year. Pentecostals, Baptists, all of them — they would have to look at that sucker. Does that have anything to do with Christianity? “We focus on the risen Christ.” Tell me about the risen Christ along with Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.

Fourth: prophetic Christianity. We spoke of Churchanity, which does not need to be defined for this group. The opposite of that is prophetic Christianity, but the prophetic Christian has been AWOL in this culture and in a certain diocese for the last twenty-five years at least.

One last category: salvation understood as getting off of the hook. You know about Jimmy Swaggart and his “Jesus died for your sins.” The whole thing is focused on guilt and shame as opposed to the Catholic emphasis on sanctification, or the making holy of life. One of my favorite one liners from Thomas Aquinas: “Salvation is the capacity to enjoy God”. How far that is from the baloney that we get in the Bible belt! Schleiermacher: “Religion is a taste for the infinite.” How about that, Bubba?

Enormous Opportunity

Another area of enormity is enormous opportunity.

First, we have an enormous opportunity to celebrate multiculturalism and religious pluralism. We have more than one reason to celebrate. One reason is to be nice, to be nice to people who are different from you. The second reason is to expand your own vision. The third and most important is to deepen your understanding and your appreciation of your own traditions. In a sense I am glad Shirley Maclaine is out there talking about being god because it helps me appreciate the Christian focus on transcendence-imminence.

Second: instantaneous planetary communication. Think about the role of print technology in the Protestant reformation, and look what we have now. We don’t have what Luther had, the Wittenberg door. We’ve got the Wittenberg web site — instantaneous, electronic, planetary communication. Some things are wrong with that, depending on what you want to communicate, but for us it is Christianity. To overlook the possibilities of instantaneous communication, while the Religious Right has its nose and money in electronics big time, is insane.

Third: the ecumenical happening. I am not talking about the Ecumenical Movement, where we try to get this big denomination in harmony with that big denomination. What I am saying is that ecumenicity is simply happening. I just got hit with that when I went to the Post Office to mail fliers advertising a series on church history, taught by a Roman Catholic monastic. I was mailing it to Dr. Bruce Prescott, pastor of one of the big Baptist churches here. Bruce is an intelligent, open, committed, Christian person. Why wouldn’t he be interested in what John McGee, a Roman Catholic monastic, has to say? This kind of ecumenicity is happening more and more in this part of the country. This is the kind of thing that is going to open up and explode. All of this denominational openness suggests to some people: “We live in the post-Christian era.” Hell, we live in the post-everything era. It is impossible not to be open. Unless you are insane or lost in sin, you have to be open, because it is open out there.

Fourth: Churchanity is increasingly, obviously irrelevant. This is what is coming clear to me. Bishop Spong made a statement that got my undivided attention. I disagreed at first when I heard him say that the Christian Coalition is the last, dying gasp of fundamentalism. If it is, it is a well-funded last, dying gasp. But I think I know what he means. I can picture it for you. Picture a two-hour debate on prime time TV between Marcus Borg and Ralph Reed. The fundamentalists of course would know that Ralph won because God would tell them so, but any open-minded, somewhat objective, somewhat sane person would know that Marcus beat the crap out of Ralph and that it wasn’t even close. Furthermore, those issues were settled forever. The gospels are not biographies of Jesus. You cannot bet the family farm that any one statement attributed to Jesus is historically accurate. In order not to believe that, you have to believe six impossible things before breakfast.

Fifth: the new interest in spirituality. John Bradshaw said that the twelve step program may go down as the most important thing to happen in the twentieth century. The interest in Joseph Campbell is a remarkable thing. There is a spiritual hunger that is looking for the kind of integrity that we specialize in. So this is a sad time for us when we look at the pea-shooter perversions in the midst of the enormous universe, especially the enormous universe of the mind and of the spirit. However, we have a great tradition to claim. There are some very solid, nonromantic reasons for believing that we are not just complaining but have much to offer.

Let me close by talking about the kind of person who can get with this kind of program. This is my composite saint, a composite of three characters. Thomas More is one; Ted Koppel is another; and Wile E. Coyote is the third.

Starting with Thomas More, the man for all seasons — the night before they go to chop off his head, his best friend comes to him. He says, “Thomas are you sure that Christ intended the Pope to be the universal head of the church?” Thomas More said, “No, I am not sure, but I think he did.” One of the characteristics of the saint for our times is, while acknowledging objective uncertainty, you are willing to bet your life on your on your best vision. That is one dimension of it.

The second is the Ted Koppel dimension. Ted Koppel, God I love that man! He listens carefully to everyone. The gun people out there: “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” He listens to that. Then we have Dr. Billy Joe Mammon from the Waxahacie Clinic who has done his own study proving that there is no relationship between cigarette smoking and lung cancer. And Ted Koppel listens to him. They would have to haul me out of there in a straight jacket. You get the feeling that Ted would really like to go fishing with these guys after the show. He clarifies. Blessed are the clarifiers for they shall inherit something good. We need clarifiers. We have too many smoke merchants these days. Ted confronts with information rather than anger. That is another thing we need to do. Finally, in faithfulness with the baptismal covenant, he honors all persons.

Then we come to my favorite pagan saint, Wile E. Coyote and the relentless pursuit of your vision of God’s will. You can pursue God’s will without conning yourself, allowing that your vision of God’s will just possibly might not be God’s will. Nevertheless, you have a relentless commitment to your vision. Wile E. Coyote is unintimidated by pain. Nothing ever works for him. He falls off the cliff. He dusts himself off. He looks up, and here comes the anvil. Then the next day he is writing to the Acme company for its new device that is going to work. That is the spirit: driven by the light in the face of impossible odds. Wile E. Coyote is not a stoic who can take it. He is a person whose basic conviction is that life is good and that he is involved in something unspeakably magnificent. Whatever it costs him is just fine.

I thought I ought to act at least somewhat religious so I am going to read from the twelfth chapter of Hebrews, which says, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us; looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding the shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.” Now if that is not Wile E. Coyote, nothing is.

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