In my last blog entry Sustaining Service, I noted that Episcopalians no longer expect to see God materially active in their day-to-day lives, or in the world around them. What’s more, I encounter men and women who have devoted lives of faithful service to Church and community and who have never expected God to even notice them. Is this the unfortunate consequence of low expectation or might it also be the self-effacing spiritual humility which is characteristic of our Anglican Culture in general?
That as may be, I also detect a recent movement, recent in the sense of a development of the last 100 years, whereby Episcopalians along with their Liberal Protestant neighbors have become confused between being in discipleship with Christ and being good persons doing only what good people do. A pervasive social humanitarianism has increasingly blinded us to the fact that the goal of Christian discipleship is not becoming good, but being in love.
I am aware that placing God as the object of our being in love seems strange to many Episcopalian ears. Such language has a very non-modern, vaguely revivalist tone. It is this revivalist-evangelical tone, so pervasive in the religious culture of United States, that Episcopalians see themselves in opposition to. Although our Anglican Tradition of public worship has deep roots in mystical theology and uses the language of metaphysical experience, alas, at the personal level of our individual day-to-day lives we have come to view mystical or metaphysical experience as a relic of past centuries.
For many of us God has set the laws of the universe in motion and now stands off-stage. Our task is to be good servants and stewards of church and community. This attitude is akin to servants in a great house getting on with their work and never expecting to encounter, or be encountered by, the master of the house.
I recall Carl Jung having made a comment somewhere in his voluminous works about how 20th century people no-longer possess a medieval mindset. He was referring to something that Charles Taylor, in his magnum opus, A Secular Age refers to as the process of disinchantment. In the enchanted world of the medieval mindset, God is magically present and experienced as a tangible, material reality. In the enchanted world human beings experience the reality of God primarily through the external material world in contrast to internal emotional reality.
Taylor charts the historical process whereby the world of enchantment becomes supplanted. The disenchanted world is a world in which God becomes displaced from external material reality. The first stage of this process relegates God to the sphere of internal emotional experience. The end of this process produces the secular age in which it is now possible for human beings to understand themselves and their world without any reference to the existence, let alone the presence, of God, active in the world and in their personal lives.
Anglicanism has always displayed a surprising openness to contemporary culture. Pick any age and Anglicans were in the lead among those Christians who embraced the spirit of each age. This is one of our great strengths, but also poses a danger for us; that in an age when God has largely disappeared from wider social and material discourse, we find it increasingly hard to contemplate a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Our deep liturgical life, designed to open us to the mysterious and yet identifiable experience of God permeating our experience, now functions as something that filters-out direct experience of God. For us the practice of religion has become very safe. The celebration of the community in love with God becomes the mere celebration of the community for, and of, itself.
My very superficial excursion into the historical process that has contributed to Episcopalians no-longer expecting to see God, is a preamble to saying, I wish I could be a person like Bartimaeus in the Gospel passage set for this Sunday, which is a continuation of Mark chapter 10.
I just hate myself when, in an over-priced restaurant serving mediocre food, the waiter comes over and asks: ‘Is everything all right?’. I usually find myself responding in my best brought-up voice: ‘Everything is lovely, thank you’, and then muttering through the rest of the meal, ‘well I shan’t have to come here again!’
I wish, oh how I wish, I could be like Bartimaeus who seems to have no difficulty making a fuss in order to get what he wants. He is completely unperturbed by the admonishment of the people around him telling him to shush and not make such a scene.
Bartimaeus, is not only completely impervious to what others think of him, but he knows exactly what he wants. He also has no doubt about who it is that has the power to help him. Bartimaeus not only knows who Jesus is, he expects to be noticed and responded to, by Jesus. What is it that motivates Bartimaeus? If it’s self-confidence then he earns only my envy. If it’s his desperation, then he earns my admiration. Could I allow myself to show that degree of vulnerability and to take such a risk?
Although confidence and desperation are clearly part of his motivation, Mark intends us to see Bartimaeus’ action as faith-driven. The crowd tells him the commotion is caused by Jesus of Nazareth passing by. Bartimaeus does not call out Jesus of Nazareth in calling out to Jesus. He calls out instead for Jesus, Son of David (code for Messiah) to pay attention to him. Bartimaeus is compelled by the courage to believe, placing all his hope in the expectation that God will notice and hear him.
In Jung’s sense, Bartimaeus has a medieval mindset. He lives in a world described by Taylor as one of enchantment. He is surrounded by a tangible and material presence of God’s Divine power. Divine power is located in objects, categorized as pure and impure. Divine power resides in places, this one holy, this one profane. It manifests through situations and people. If the divine is materially present then so too is Satan and evil. Evil too, surrounds Bartimaeus and he knows it, intimately! Being blind he may well have felt himself cursed. Certainly others would have attributed his blindness to the results of sin. Bartimaeus is a human being feared and shunned by others in his world as a source of spiritual defilement, a human manifestation of evil.
However, I have to conclude that Bartimaeus is not like me or you. His motivations and expectations have been shaped by a culture of enchantment, whereas, ours are shaped by living in a post-enchanted world, a world of disenchanted, in which God is felt by us to be materially absent. There are some Christians who struggle to maintain the medieval mindset. However, Episcopalians are not found among these kinds of Christians. We no-longer look for God or really expect to be encountered by God. Instead, we live in a world of personal agency and personal responsibility. In fact, we are spiritually constrained to become increasingly self-referenceing within a world of disenchantment. We have become the authors of our own salvation.
What then, is the value for us of this Gospel story? I believe Mark’s story still carries a value for us because it is through this story that God continues to speak to us. Culture separates us from the individual called Bartimaeus. However, Bartimaeus is still a human being. We share with him motivations that are still a condition of the human heart. Where we differ is in our sense of what expectations.
Bartimaeus has faith and the courage to hope. In that hope he risks not getting. He risks disappointment! Yet, Bartimaeus risks, with all his being, because he is at a point in his life where he can’t afford not to take the risk. Bartimaeus is a man who not only expects a response from Jesus, he also knows what he wants. It might have been easy for Jesus to assume he knows what Bartimaeus seeks, as in, another blind person to be healed. Yet, Jesus does not assume he knows and so asks Bartimaeus to asks him, what is it you want me to do for you?
As we share the contours of the human heart with Bartimaeus perhaps there are some questions that help us with this story.
- What have you seen or heard that brings you to back to Church week by week?
- Do you long to see hope walking by?
- What do you need Christ to free you from in order to become?
- What will it mean for you when God removes what has been holding you back in your life?
Jesus connects with Bartimaeus in a manner that results in the removal of his blindness. This is because of a change that has already begun to take place inside him. Using the more appropriate terminology of our culture I might say that Bartimaeus’ faith, hope and courage to risk failure allows him and Jesus to come into alignment. We seek and find God through the way our hopes, and disappointments bring about an alignment between us, and God.
Borrowing from computer technology, the cordless keyboard and mouse have to come within range of the bluetooth signal. They have to be in alignment with the desktop. We come into alignment with God through giving expression to the yearnings of our hearts.
Mark’s Gospel story ends in a key phrase. For weeks now, in successive sermon blogs, I have been mining this phrase to create an image for our coming into alignment with God. Mark tells us that Bartimaeus having regained his sight followed Jesus on the road.