Monday, October 6, 2008
The Return of Virtue
It feels good finally to get my fingers on a keyboard again! With the start of a new school year I'm always a little harried trying to cover all the bases – making sure all of my advisees are taking the right courses to complete their majors, and seeing that all of my other students are reading and writing to the best of their ability. And then there are the meetings – the tedious, incessant meetings.
I am often asked what it's like to have such a cushy job, where all I have to do is walk in front of a classroom a few times a day and talk off the top of my head about whatever comes to mind. This is the impression that some, perhaps many, have about teaching. Suffice it to say that it is a mistaken impression. All I can do when confronted with this question is to remain calm and patiently explain that when it comes to education there is much more that goes on behind the scenes than meets the eye. Still, since I don't wear a hard hat everyday, or handle money on a regular basis, or trade stocks (thank God!), sell cars, drive a tractor, etc., etc., I am sometimes met with looks of sheer incredulity, as if I'm joking when I suggest that there is actually some preparation that goes into my daily lessons. I can imagine that pastors have similar experiences, trying to explain to their skeptical parishioners that they really do work more than just one day a week.
As I began to reflect on one of our lectionary passages for this Sunday – the story of Moses coming down from his long consultation with Yahweh on Mount Sinai – I felt a similar need to remind myself of just what had been going on behind the scenes before this unfortunate descent into anarchy. Reading the four chapters that precede this narrative helps us get a clearer sense of how Moses must have felt upon witnessing the actions of his "stiff-necked people." Actually, I'm not sure that he had any desire to claim the Israelites as his own. Neither he nor God seemed to want them at this point, despite all the work they had just been doing on their behalf. Consider the subtle humor betrayed in the text as each seems intent on blaming the other for the excesses of these backsliders.
"The Lord said to Moses, 'Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely…'" (Ex. 32:7).
To which Moses, not willing to be held solely responsible, ups the ante with his bold response:
"O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand?" (Ex. 32:11).
I've been in meetings like this, when someone's best-laid plans have come to naught and there needs to be a fall guy to make things right. It's also a common strategy among parents: "Have you seen your son's report card?" It's amazing that anything ever gets done with so much blame being passed around.
But the exasperation of both Moses and God is understandable, for it had only been a short time ago when the Israelites – like eager college students reviewing their syllabi at the start of the semester – gave their solemn pledge to the conditions of the covenant: "All the words that the Lord has spoken we will do" (Ex. 24:3b). Such big plans. Such high aspirations. But this was before the forty-day summit that left them wondering why they had registered for this difficult course in the first place. In the absence of their teacher and leader, it was not long before the men started getting grumpy and the women began fiddling with their earrings.
Behind the scenes, of course, Moses was working hard, doing his best to ensure that the people of God might come to know their redeemer in all things, from their proper worship and sacrifice in the tabernacle, to the construction of the Ark of the Covenant. And you should see how God hoped to adorn his priests. Aaron would have been ashamed to know just how much time and effort both God and his brother were putting into his sacred vocation.
But even Aaron got a little bored, and perhaps doubtful of Moses' return, so he was easily persuaded by the will of the people. Soon the crowd was pooling its resources in order to create its own tabernacle and priests and Holy Ark in the form of a golden calf. So while Moses and God were on Mount Sinai, taking their time to provide for the spiritual sustenance and well being of the Israelites, the so-called people of God, who had once been so enthusiastic for their new lifestyle of freedom, were making indulgent plans of their own. They started with the first commandment and worked their way down the list until each of those proscriptions was fairly well dragged through the desert dust.
I think there is much in this text that can inform us about the necessary limits of human freedom and the perils of unregulated excess. More than this, I believe this narrative reminds us all of how indispensable to our spiritual lives such virtues as discipline and patience really are. Given the recent events on Wall Street, it could not have come at a better time.
I have often asked my theology students to reflect on the concept of human freedom and what it is supposed to look like in our day-to-day existence. We certainly hear a lot about it, especially from those whose tastes run toward sporting little American flags on the lapels of their suit coats, but I'm not sure we ever stop and think about its implications. The mantra in Washington over the past decade or so has been that deregulation of the banking industry – that is, liberating the exchange of funds from the meddlesome imposition of federal laws so that freedom might reign in the economic sector – would certainly mean fuller coffers and more satisfied consumers the world over. A "bull market" they call it. And so to this end we began pooling our earrings and the like so that we, like the depraved Israelites at the foot of Sinai, might worship our own golden calf of consumptive excess. Indeed, we placed so much faith in this commercial means of grace – "No money down and no payments until 2010!" – that we became entirely convinced of its efficacy for the continued health of the free market and thus for our souls, so closely were the two aligned.
But just last week the party came to an end. Freedom in the markets gave way to panic and fear, and now we are looking for our own Moses to lead us out of the wilderness. Perhaps this will come in a return to virtue. I hope so. What we need is a Moses whose stone tablets will remind us that the one freedom we should value most highly has nothing to do with the lack of external constraints in a free market. Rather, it is established on the real presence of internal convictions in the heart of every believer. In the midst of profligacy and abandon, we might convince ourselves that we can actually get something for nothing, but in the strange logic of God's grace, we know that this will happen only if we are willing to work for it, only if we are ready to acknowledge our covenant responsibility. So it is with some justice I think that while we languish this week in the pits of Wall Street, we will be asked on the Sabbath to raise our eyes to consider Moses on the mountain, covenant in hand.
It is a shame that some in the last few years have tried to baptize our economic excesses with an appeal to the Gospel, assuring us that God desires for God's followers both health (salvation) and wealth (stuff). It's not difficult to see how this elicits its own golden calves, all in the hope of trying to establish a tangible sign of the Lord's favor. But given our current economic climate, I think we would do well now to consider a movement that has been going on quietly behind the scenes for many years. For while the loudest have lauded the dawn of a kingdom of prosperity, the gentle voices of some have preached a different gospel, a message of voluntary simplicity.
At one time frugality and thrift were considered to be model virtues of the faith, and they were founded on the assumption that all Christians are to be stewards of God's creation. This being the case, it was important to emphasize the need for discipline, both in one's spiritual and economic affairs, for the two were of a piece. One doesn't have to talk long with those who lived through the Great Depression before being reminded of this simple truth. At the heart of this discipline, of course, are some of the very "thou shalt nots" that Moses came to bestow upon his wayward people, even though they were none too enthusiastic to hear them.
But this is where it must be different for us. Though golden calves are better at attracting our attention and briefly satisfying our lusts, it will be the spiritual values of our faith tradition – forged over time, and usually behind the scenes – that will be the backbone of what sustains us through this present crisis. And though it may seem contrary to our way of being in the world, there are times, as Moses' commandments remind us, when our "thou shalts" of personal freedom will need to take a back seat to our "thou shalt nots" of communal responsibility.
And this may not be the great sacrifice that we all expect, for as the old Shaker hymn assures us, simplicity can engender its own peculiar joy. That is, the possibility of fulfillment can be found in a spiritual discipline that curtails our wants and thereby accentuates our real human needs. This is one of the forgotten hallmarks of our faith, of which we need desperately to be reminded. Perhaps Garrison Keillor said it best in a quote that I have held dear for close to twenty years now:
What keeps our faith cheerful is everywhere in daily life, a sign that faith rules through ordinary things: through cooking and small talk, through storytelling, making love, fishing, tending animals and sweet corn and flowers, through sports, music, and books, raising kids – all the places where the gravy soaks in and grace shines through. Even in a time of elephantine vanity and greed, one never has to look far to see the campfires of gentle people.
As the Titans on Wall Street fall, the faithful in our Main Street churches will endure, for the meek – those who revel not in gold but in the gift of human relationships – will ultimately inherit the earth.
Great River Earth Institute
The Simple Living Network
The Simplicity Resource Guide
Art and Images
1. Nicholas Poussin, Adoration of the Golden Calf (1633-34),
The National Gallery, London.
2. I'm sure it's just a coincidence, but there's this lovely statue of a bronze bull on Wall Street.
3. Photo by Katie Derus, The Winona Daily News, Winona, MN, September 24, 2007.