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CONVOCATION ADDRESS – May 2014
Stewards of God’s mysteries in an age of disenchantment.
My first words must be an expression of gratitude to Knox College and President Dorcas Gordon for the honorary doctorate of divinity you have given me today, for the invitation to give this convocation address, and for your hospitality during these days in Toronto. It has been a delight to share time with members of the faculty and students alike, and also to renew acquaintance with former students and friends, as well as with this fine city. I am no stranger to either Toronto or Canada. On one occasion during your summer of 1983, I drove with my wife and two of our children from Montreal to Vancouver discovering the beauty of the Canadian lakes and forests, the excitement of the Calgary stampede, and the omnipresence of your national bird, the mosquito. But I must hasten on beyond anecdotes to address the graduating class. In doing so, I would like to share some reflections on St. Paul’s words written to the Corinthian Christians, that those called to ministry in the church should be trustworthy “stewards of God’s mysteries.” (I Cor. 4:1).
In the course of time, the phrase “Christian mysteries” came to refer to the sacraments, but for Paul “God’s mysteries” referred primarily to the good news disclosed to us in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The mystery revealed is God’s purpose to reconcile all things in Christ, and so bring to birth a new humanity in which everyone is restored to wholeness of life. This incomprehensible mystery of grace which only faith can grasp, is that which gives us hope, for it is embodied in the One who embraces both us and the world in redemptive love. To share this good news and therefore celebrate this mystery, is the task of those called to be faithful “stewards of God’s mysteries.”
Despite the fact that the term “mystery” was associated with mystery religions and Gnostic cults Paul frequently used the phrase “God’s mysteries” to expresses that what had now come to light in Jesus the Christ had long been hidden. That cosmic secret was out. It had taken humankind a long time to discern that the ultimate mystery in whom we live, move and have our being loved the world so much. As custodian of this good news the church cannot be a mystery sect which keeps its secrets to itself, known only to initiates, and boasting of its spiritual athleticism. On the contrary, the church is a movement initiated into and empowered by the Spirit to make this secret known to the whole inhabited universe. And to do so in order that everyone might discern the indescribable beauty and love of the One who seeks to embrace us all, that life-giving gracious mystery that is greater than we can imagine, yet without whom we cannot live with purpose and hope. Even so, the mystery of which we are stewards remains mystery, beyond our full comprehension, even though what has been disclosed is always sufficient for us.
This notion of “mystery” has been central to Christian tradition through the centuries. We can see it reflected in the design of church buildings, the oldest of which had sanctuaries resembling the empty tomb of Easter day, lit only by candles which spoke of the light that had broken through the darkness. Mystery was at the heart of the sacramental rites that evolved through the early centuries of the Christian tradition, and the Medieval mystery plays that enthralled those who, devastated by plague and war, watched in awe. This sense of mystery remains in large sections of the church especially in the East and its liturgical rites. But it has become problematic in the West since the Enlightenment, regarded by many as a hangover from the Dark Ages of magic, superstition and ignorance.
The Reformation helped initiate this process of disenchantment: sceptical about mystery, wary of sacramentalism, iconoclastic towards sacred objects, and committed to the plain sense of the Word and the simplicity of communal space. The rise to predominance of science made the process irrevocable, reducing the realm of mystery to detective stories and fantasy tales. Cybernetics has completed the task. For while the internet may be a mystery to some of us, the mysterious cloud in which our data is stored is not the “cloud of unknowing” but a warehouse in California. All knowledge, though not all wisdom, is available to us and can be downloaded at the click of a mouse. Mystery has become banal; its true meaning expunged from our consciousness by technology.
In short, the contemporary world within which we are stewards of God’s mysteries is, despite its vulgar religiosity, essentially secular in character. Even amongst those who claim to believe in God, especially on this continental outpost of the Western world, many are embarrassed by the idea that anything is ultimately beyond our control, that there is a hidden dimension to reality that defies human analysis, and that the meaning of life cannot be reduced to digital formulae. Yet we cannot live without mystery. This is evident on every hand. In the rebirth of paganism, the prevalence of astrology, and the flourishing of old as well as new spiritualities. You seldom find a worthwhile Christian book in airport bookstores, but esoteric literature abounds, attracting as much attention as glossy glamour and health magazines that inform us about the secret lives of the rich and famous.
We who are called to be stewards of God’s mysteries should welcome this spiritual hunger even though we discern the emptiness of the solutions proffered and decry much of its substance. These hunger pains of a growing disenchantment with disenchantment heralds the recovery of a sense of mystery in a sterile environment shaped by reductionist science and secularism. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer noted in a sermon he preached in London in 1934. the “lack of mystery in our modern life means decay and impoverishment for us,” He went on to say that a ” human life is of worth to the extent that it keeps its respect for mystery.”
At one level sceptics are right to be embarrassed by the discourse of mystery and our recourse to the language of mystery as its stewards. Too often we people of faith have used it as a tactic to side-step the searching questions posed by science and philosophy. We should rather acknowledge the legitimate task of science, its divine calling we might even say, to uncover all that is hidden, to find answers to all problems, to explore every nook and cranny of space, and to lay bare the secrets of the human enigma, as well as the mysteries of the universe of which we are a tiny fragment for a fraction of time.
As stewards of God’s mysteries we are not in competition with science, and its unending quest to explore the ever new mysteries that appear on the horizon of our knowledge. But we struggle against scientism, that arrogant ideology which claims that there is nothing beyond what can be empirically proven, nothing transcendent that holds us to account and gives meaning and purpose to life, no ultimate mystery that draws us deeper into mystery even as our knowledge expands. This mystery to which we bear testimony is not within the domain of scientific exploration, nor is it to be discovered in the gaps of human knowledge, or reduced to a controllable formula; it is the core of reality, the ultimate mystery we name God, unusable as that word may have become. We do not discover or unpack this mystery; it discloses itself in ways that take us by surprise, changing lives, restoring dignity and transforming the world.
Just as we are not in competition with science, so we are not in competition with genuine secularity. Secularity is an affirmation of the world as world; it rightly rejects false dichotomies, religious ideologies that distort reality, and hierarchies that subjugate us. As stewards of God’s mysteries we honour and respect human freedom, dignity, equality and inclusion, as pointers to the coming of a “new heaven and earth.” But in affirming secularity we struggle against secularism, an ideology without values, promoting licence, greed and a lack of respect for the “other” as well as the earth that sustains us and the mystery that enfolds us. In affirming the world as world, we equally affirm that it is God’s world, and therefore declare that the world can only be truly the world, truly secular, when it acknowledges that ultimate mystery which gives it meaning.
As stewards of God’s mysteries, then, we seek the insight and the company of science, and we struggle alongside secular humanists who are committed to justice in serving the common good, and caring for the earth. And along with them we are also engaged in a struggle against false religion. False religion is not a denomination or non-Christian religion; false religion runs through all religions, religious institutions, cultures and traditions, not least our own. False religion, the target of prophets both old and new, is idolatry, religion claiming to own and control God’s mysteries rather than being their stewards.
Christianity is as prone to such idolatry as any other religion. The turning of the church into an instrument of colonialism or big business, the commercialization of Christianity, the abuse of ecclesiastical authority, the sanctioning of war in the name of Christ or legitimating conquest, racism, xenophobia and homophobia on the basis of crude exegesis, are all symptoms of idolatry. Idolatry exalts those whose power exceeds the boundaries of being human, and dehumanizes its victims created in the image of God. Idolatry tries to control the mysteries in order to control the source of all mystery, and to do so for its own ends. This is the mystery of iniquity which serves the lie, fosters hatred and enmity, and foments violence.
By contrast, as stewards of God’s mysteries we bear witness to the mystery of the One who gives life, the mystery of the God who is Spirit, and the mystery of grace disclosed in Christ which gives human life worth and the universe hope. To be faithful stewards of these mysteries in such a world is no small challenge. But this is your calling and for this you have spent years in preparation. You do not leave here with all the skills needed, or all the answers, nor will the time come when you can say anything other than that we have this treasure in earthenware pots. For who cannot be overwhelmed by the very idea that we are called to be stewards of God’s mysteries? Who are we to speak of such things? That is why true theology always begins in silence, listening for the Word that discloses mystery. We will never cease from struggling with honest doubt as we listen for the Word, nor will we boast of certainties that arise out of our own or our institutions’ insecurities. Whether we are faithful stewards will not always be self-evident, and might only be revealed at the end of our journey of faith; but to become trustworthy we ourselves have to learn to trust that this is our calling even though this too may be a mystery known only to God.
There will be times when you have to be social prophets, standing shoulder to shoulder with others committed to the same concerns for justice. Yet in doing so you will not stop being stewards of God’s mysteries, for it is precisely this that will give direction and purpose to your witness in speaking truth to power and expressing solidarity with the powerless. There will be many times when you will stand alongside those who are suffering, grieving, mourning, times when you yourself will suffer, grieve and mourn, times when you bear witness to joy and hope when others despair. But in doing so you will not only be a grief counsellor, a social worker, a compassionate friend, but will always be a steward of God’s mysteries, helping to bring light into the dark and frightening spaces of human experience and existence in order to bring healing and restore wholeness.
And week by week as you teach and preach you will be doing more than educate or engaging in fine rhetoric, you will be stewards of God’s mysteries, helping people to discern that that which has been disclosed in Christ awakens faith, inspires hope, and enables love. And then you will also discover why, in the course of time, God’s mysteries came to refer to baptism and the Eucharist, for it is when the common things of life, the water without which we cannot live, and the bread and wine we need for food, suddenly become for us the fountain of life, the bread of life, and the cup of salvation. Don’t ask me to explain how this happens, John Calvin once remarked, simply adore the mystery!
And, yes, there will be those times when the mystery of which you are stewards seems remote from the humdrum of the tasks you are called to perform, and you too are gripped by disenchantment. Days will pass when you will forget the mystery as you struggle with insoluble problems and perplexing experiences, finding the solutions you have long pronounced are inadequate. But then, with Denise Levertov you will discover with her and for yourself that
once more the quiet mystery
is present to me, the throng’s clamor
recedes: the mystery
that there is anything, anything at all,
let alone cosmos, joy, memory, everything,
rather than void: and that, O Lord,
Creator, Hallowed One, You still
hour by hour sustain it.READ MORE
As Professor of Church and Society, The Rev. Dr. Stuart Macdonald’s research has focused on changing face of religion, in particular Christianity, in Canada.
His work has been included in a new publication, Canadian Churches and the First World War (Edited by Gordon L. Heath), that is available now. You can purchase the book through its publisher, Wipf and Stock, or through Amazon.
Most accounts of Canada and the First World War either ignore or merely mention in passing the churches’ experience. Such neglect does not do justice to the remarkable influence of the wartime churches nor to the religious identity of the young Dominion. The churches’ support for the war was often wholehearted, but just as often nuanced and critical, shaped by either the classic just war paradigm or pacifism’s outright rejection of violence. The war heightened issues of Canadianization, attitudes to violence, and ministry to the bereaved and the disillusioned. It also exacerbated ethnic tensions within and between denominations, and challenged notions of national and imperial identity. The authors of this volume provide a detailed summary of various Christian traditions and the war, both synthesizing and furthering previous research. In addition to examining the experience of Roman Catholics (English and French speaking), Anglicans, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Lutherans, Mennonites, and Quakers, there are chapters on precedents formed during the South African War, the work of military chaplains, and the roles of church women on the home front.READ MORE