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Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Trinity (in the Octave of SS. Peter & Paul)

Audio file of Matins & Ante-Communion for Trinity 4 in Petertide [1]

Thou hypocrite, cast out first the beam that is in thine own eye,
and then shalt thou see clearly to pull out the mote that is in thy brother’s eye

The blind leading the blind is a common image mostly familiar to us from Luke’s ‘Gospel of Mercy’ in the parable where Jesus speaks about leaders leading others astray. It has its antecedents in the prophetic criticisms of the leadership of Israel such as “You have turned aside from the way; you have caused many to stumble by your instruction”(Malachi 2.8), or “Those who guide these people have been leading them astray” (Is. 9.16) and, “His watchmen are blind; they are all without knowledge”(Is. 56.10). The image has very much to do with a critique of our claims to know. “Eyes have they and see not” extends the image to all of us in our blindness about what we think we know when in fact we are ignorant, and, yet, judgemental about others, hence the moral point about hypocrisy; judging others while exempting ourselves from the same judgment, unable to see ourselves in the other.

The image of the blind leading the blind is not unique to Christianity. It belongs as well to Siddhartha Gautama’s strong critique of Hindu religion out of which arises classical Buddhism. For him the Brahmin caste, the gurus of the Upanishads, are the blind leading the blind. He rejects the Brahmins even as he rejects the caste system altogether in favour of a more inclusive ‘enlightenment’ available for all.

The image of the blind leading the blind belongs to a self-critique of reason and knowing. Perhaps nowhere is it better illustrated than in Sophocles’ great tragedy, Oedipus Rex (Wayne Hankey, Wisdom belongs to God), and in ways that speak to our current confusions about the self and the modern managerial technocratic culture which consumes us. Oedipus thought that he knew who he was both in terms of his parents and in his confidence about his form of knowing when in fact he was blind to both. The play is about how he comes to know that he didn’t know. He comes into collision with himself in thinking that his form of knowing, a kind of discursive reasoning, is absolute, only to discover that it is at best limited and partial. His discovery happens through the encounter with prophecy, in his case, the blind prophet of Apollo, Teiresias, who, though blind, nonetheless knows the truth about Oedipus. The play explores how Oedipus comes to know this truth and in so doing discovers that his form of knowing belongs to a higher form of knowing; it is incomplete and partial in itself. To use a later language (Boethius), he comes to know how ratio participates in intellectus.

The argument takes the form of a conflict between the prophetic insight (or intellectus) of Teiresias and the problem-solving kind of reasoning (or ratio) of Oedipus. What drives the argument is Oedipus’ desire to know even if it means discovering the painful truth about himself, a truth which he will own in a way which seems utterly impossible to us given the forms of our subjectivity. Yet this is the greatness of the play and where it connects to the readings for this Sunday. It is only through an awakening to our own limitations of knowing that we come to know. There is, we might say, the awareness that our reasoning is at once always limited and partial and yet always participates in that which is greater than ourselves. When we forget that then we negate the mercy of the divine knowing and loving which is the only truth of our lives.

“Be ye therefore merciful,  as your Father is also merciful,” Jesus tells the disciples. His words echo the great Beatitude about mercy, the one Beatitude which operates upon the principle of reciprocity and identity rather than difference. “Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy,” mercy for mercy, as it were. Here that mercy is grounded in the Father’s mercy. And here that same form of reciprocity is extended to justice, reminding us that “mercy seasons justice” (perfects it), in Portia’s famous phrase in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. “Judge not and ye shall not be judged.” This reminds us that we are all subject to justice and judgment which is to say that we are all held accountable to the logos, the reasoning-principle of God. Hypocrisy is when we exempt ourselves from that intellectual structure of the cosmos as if we were ourselves God. Such is a feature of the abstract subjective freedoms of the postmodern world that asserts identities, desires, and demands against nature itself in a kind of solipsistic reason. What we claim to be in our minds is all that we are; a social construct without substance, without content and meaning.

Such things arise in reaction to the empty determinisms of the managerial technocratic society which reduces us all to things, to robots and automatons. It, too, is an abstract reasoning which negates human flourishing and any sense of human purpose. We have techne but no episteme; skills and arts but no knowledge, no wisdom. In a way, the current discontents of our world are a reaction against the thinness of the culture of secular humanism, itself a product of Christianity in its moral universalism (Theo Hobson’s God Created Humanism: The Christian Basis of Secular Values, 2017). But our discontents are also about something else, a sense of the betrayal of this universalism in its secular form; what we thought was human flourishing for all turns out to benefit only a privileged few and to the degradation of the natural world.

What we thought was “a level of respect owed to human beings irrespective of their nationality, status, gender, age, or achievement,” as Rowan Williams observes about the UN Declaration of Rights (his emphasis), has been betrayed by the technocratic culture which reduces everything and everyone to an algorithmic reasoning that negates any meaning to human freedom and human particularity. It is a false universal in which humans are nothing more than economic entities. In reaction to its levelling force, subjective freedoms are sought not in spite of but, instead, precisely through the assertion of various identities that can only pit one against another, a veritable war of all against all, an inability to see oneself in the other. What is lost is any coherent sense of a common humanity. Technocratic culture, as Jan Zwicky notes, offers no meaning to human life. The paradox of our discontents, seen in the various protests of our day, is that it signals a desire for meaning, for human purpose and flourishing against this false universal. The irony is that both assume the same logic of binary opposition which both are unable to transcend.

Prof. James Doull, one of my mentors, wondered in the last decades of his life whether philosophy was possible in the modern/postmodern world. If it was, it would have to be in part through the institutions of our social and political culture of which religion is one in the concreteness of its life and imaginary. The question then is whether religion and therefore philosophy too is possible. Our lessons speak to such possibilities. The lesson from Romans is familiar from the Burial Office where it is sometimes read. Suffering is a form of ignorance but also a way out of ignorance. “The sufferings of this present time” are gathered into something greater and more; in short, into the divine life and glory. It is not something which we can create but only something into which we can enter. The Gospel highlights at once the principle of divine grace or mercy and what stands in the way of its realization in us, namely, ourselves. It is really a question of our awareness of our ignorance and blindness that allows us to see, however much “through a glass darkly”, the very principle upon which our thinking and being depend. Only then can we know even as we are known, namely, in the divine contemplation of all things, as Plotinus, a ‘pagan’ philosopher shows, and where “in each all are manifest.”

But this means a radical openness to God. Such is worship. It is the worship of God in his mercy and truth, not the worship of ‘our faith,’ meaning ourselves in our self-assurances and self-assertions. Nor can it be the religion of secular humanism, parroting the thin nostrums of the contemporary culture of rights and identities, the culture in ecclesiastical drag, as it were. Funerals, for instance, are not “celebrations of life,” as if all there was is the particularity of someone’s life, however remembered by friends and family. No. In the Christian understanding, funerals are a celebration of the life of Christ in people’s lives, a gathering to God of all that belongs to their lives in grace and forgiveness. Our worship has to be something thicker and more substantial as the corrective and the redemption of secular humanism.

As the Gospel trenchantly shows this means confronting our hypocrisy, itself a form of the self-critique of reason. In our hypocrisy we oppose one another and ourselves to the reason-principle, the logos of God himself. “Judge not” and “condemn not” are the two negative injunctions in the Gospel. They are complemented by two positive injunctions: “forgive and ye shall be forgiven; give and it shall be given unto you.” Together, the negative and the positive illuminate the nature of our participation in the life of God. The order is instructive: first, forgive, and, secondly, give. It is the reverse of the order of petitions in the Our Father. “Give us this day our daily bread”; “forgive us our trespasses even as we forgive them which trespass against us.” In the Lord’s Prayer, forgiveness follows upon our prayer to be given all that is needed for human life and human flourishing at once naturally, spiritually, and sacramentally, to summarize Aquinas on this matter. Why then does forgiveness follow? Because of our failure to honour and use the good things which God gives us. In so doing we find our separation from God and from one another.

Why the reversal here? Because everything flows from the super-abundance of divine grace which seeks its own good within which we find our good. Everything rests and moves in the divine mercy, in the forgiveness which is God himself in his own self-completeness. This is the thickness of meaning which overcomes the thinness of the technocratic culture of secular humanism.

Just as last Sunday coincided with the Octave of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist which helped to inform our reasoning, so this Sunday, the Fourth Sunday after Trinity, falls within the Octave of St. Peter and St. Paul. They are the twin pillars, the princes, of the Apostolic Church and Faith. Both help illuminate our understanding of today’s readings for both are exemplars of the self-critique of reason. Paul is blinded into sight on the road to Damascus and yet reminds us of the human predicament. “The good that I would do, I do not; the very evil that I would not do, I do.” The Gospel reading for their feast is the story of Peter acknowledging Christ as “the Son of the living God,” to which Jesus responds: “blessed art thou, Simon son of John: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee but my Father which is in heaven.” Yet immediately after this, Peter protests the idea of Christ’s passion only to be rebuked by Jesus. “Get thee behind me, Satan! … for you are not on the side of God, but of men.” Peter goes from being blessed to being accursed! But all because of a kind of blindness. He will betray Christ in the Passion only to be returned to grace by the look of Christ which calls to his mind the words of Christ. That is an awakening to truth. It happens for both Peter and Paul in and through their own awareness of the limitations of their knowing and loving.

The hypocrisies of church and culture are not hidden from view. What matters is the return to grace, to the mercy and forgiveness which restores us to communion and fellowship, to service and sacrifice. It awakens us to the radical truth of our being as found in the knowing love of God in whom we know even as we are known.

Thou hypocrite, cast out first the beam that is in thine own eye,
and then shalt thou see clearly to pull out the mote that is in thy brother’s eye

Fr. David Curry
Trinity 4 (In the Octave of SS. Peter & Paul)
July 5th, 2020