October 14, 2012

Value and Values


To see a wartime film of William Temple speaking of the significance of Canterbury Cathedral, click here.

Text: Mark 10:23: “Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples,‘How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!’”

One hundred and thirty one years ago tomorrow, the fifteenth of October, William Temple was born in Exeter, England, to a sixty-year-old father who happened also to be the local bishop. The church was a different sort of place in the eighteen-eighties, apparently.

His father would go on to become bishop of London and then, at the age of seventy-six, was elevated to be Archbishop of Canterbury in nearly the same year as this parish was founded. And William, the son of that old man, would follow the same path to the throne of Saint Augustine, becoming Archbishop of Canterbury in 1942.

It’s William who has become a particular hero of mine in the development of my own theology. William Temple became one of the most influential voices in the public discourse of his day, giving talks on the BBC about the Christian vision of social justice that even today, seventy years after they were published, seem almost shockingly progressive.

And yet he was not a preacher of the headlines. Temple was a thinker and a theologian who grounded all of his public utterances on a clear, critical understanding of the demands of Christianity, the expectations placed by this faith we claim as our own on the kind of lives we are meant to lead, and the kind of society we are supposed to long for.

I turn today to Archbishop Temple for help in understanding this difficult language of Saint Mark’s gospel. Difficult because, if it is true, it is telling us something about ourselves.

•  •  •

Let’s start with some plain speaking. Chances are you don’t feel particularly wealthy. Probably are acutely aware of all the obligations you face, all of the bills you need to pay. Probably you have to consider carefully the choices you make with your checkbook.

If for some reason you aren’t, or don’t, then the messages out there surrounding our presidential election are probably curing you of this oversight. Because practically every pronouncement from either side seems calculated to remind us, or convince us, that we are economically threatened, that we are headed for ruin, that our choices as citizens should be shaped entirely and only by our personal financial fortunes.

It does not really matter who it is you intend to support in the election; by any Christian measure we are, all of us, to be regarded as properly counted among the wealthy. All of us are among those camels squeezing through those needle eyes. Because the standard by which followers of Christ are held is the welfare of all humanity, not just how we compare to our neighbors or the folks in the next zip code over.

And by that standard, we are way, way over on the right side of the spectrum. You can consider it this way: In the United States, the absolute poverty line is calculated to be an income of fifteen dollars and fifteen cents each day. But at the global scale, the absolute poverty line is an income of one dollar and twenty-five cents every day.

Now that does not mean that our own worries are not significant, or weighty; they are. And so are our responsibilities. But it does mean that our faith is challenging us to risk asking ourselves some questions about our priorities.

Here’s how Temple saw it:

“We are bound to be concerned about housing, about nutrition, about social security, about freedom from unemployment and so forth; but let us be quite clear that our concern with every one of these is dictated and directed by our primary principle—the development of persons in community as children in the family of God. That will cover very nearly every political proposal in the social and economic field.”

You will say to me—but wait: We live in a pluralistic society. These ideas are outdated. I can’t carry into our political conversation ideas that come from a primary principle called the Christian faith. I can’t expect to demand that everyone support proposals and policies that come out of my Christian values.

Well, in a simple phrase, Archbishop Temple would tell us—that’s just a plain, stone cop-out. No, of course not everyone will agree with us. But so long as we claim to be Christians, these are the values we have committed ourselves to.

These ideas about justice, and compassion, and—most important—the development of persons in community, something very different from the idea of each individual simply realizing their potential in isolation from everyone else—all of those ideas are the values that live the very heart of our faith, and they are the hopes we are meant to carry with us when we make our choices as citizens.

Archbishop Temple had at least one other outrageous idea. He thought that the most effective way available to us to help keep our perspective properly adjusted, to remember our place in all of this and our call to help bring about this vision of society through our work as citizens, was right here. It wasn’t through service, although service was important; it wasn’t through giving money, though God knows the church needs the things of this world to change this world.

No, the most important thing we could do to keep our perspective correctly aligned was to join together here in Sunday worship. Even more specifically, he thought the single most important thing we did together was to repent—to say together the words of the confession.

Why? Because we needed to be sorry all the time? No, not at all. It’s because it’s by engaging our whole selves in this act of repentance that we are taking the right perspective on our lives. Here’s what he said about it:

“To repent is to adopt God’s viewpoint in place of your own. In itself, far from being sorrowful, the act of repentance is the most joyful thing in the world, because when you have done it you have adopted the viewpoint of truth itself, and you are in fellowship with God. It means a complete revaluation of all things we are inclined to think good. The world, as we live in it, is like shop window in which some mischievous person has got overnight and shifted all the price-labels round, so that the cheap things have the high price-labels on them, and the really precious things are priced low.... Repentance means getting those price-labels back in the right place.”

Those are profound words. Repentance—think about it; that moment in the service that seems as though it was calculated to make us feel bad. No! It is the means by which we make our value, as children of God, align with our values. It is the way we remember that the true treasures God has given us—our souls, or dignity, our character, our gifts, our experience of love—are all vastly more precious than the rusting, rotting things of this world, the things by which we usually, mistakenly, measure our worth.

Thinking about all the blather of the debates, both those past and those to come, I can’t resist this one last quote from Temple:

“Our success, or health, or welfare is of very small importance in itself; only because God loves us, unlovely as we are, have we value in ourselves; that value is our value to God; and what gives importance to our well-being is that it brings glory to God.”

“Very small importance in itself.”  Can you imagine our political leaders ever uttering such words? Hardly. Over against the language of our present moment, those words seem almost nonsensical.

But in them is the truth of the Christian hope. In them is the challenge, the real challenge, of this great hope we have been given. And by them we are called to light our path from private faith to public responsibility as people who are both Christians and citizens in community. Amen.