Sunday, January 26, 2014

Matthew 4: 12-23

When I read the Gospel stories about John and then Jesus calling people to repentance, what first comes to my mind is the cartoonish figure of a street corner preacher I once saw on Bourbon Street—a red-faced man flopping his soft-bound Bible at passersby, the ligaments in his neck straining as tightly as his piercing voice calling the tourists to repentance. Maybe you have similar negative associations with folks who use the word “repent.”

“Repent, for the kingdom of God has come near,” were Jesus’s first public words, according to the Gospel of Matthew. The first word of that first pronouncement deserves some special attention. Then we’ll hear some contemporary voices who are more in tune with the New Testament meaning of “repentance” than are the strident street corner or television evangelists.

The Greek word metanoia, which has been translated into English as “repent,” is a command to develop a new understanding or perspective with a complete change of mind and heart. To repent in the Gospel context is to change one’s way of thinking, not to regret past actions. John and Jesus were not telling alcoholics to put down the bottle. They were not condemning sexual activities. They were not revising doctrines. Rather than mandating certain beliefs or actions, John and then Jesus invited people into a whole new mindset. Of course, a change in one’s thinking leads to changes in behavior. And to change one’s way of thinking (as opposed to changing one’s beliefs or opinions) is not really a merely intellectual shift. But change begins with a new way of seeing the world. The Apostle Paul understood that followers of Jesus took on “the mind of Christ.” The early Christians, known as followers of The Way, were spiritual practitioners of a way that alters our very consciousness.

Teilhard de Chardin, an early evangelist of evolutionary Christian theology, said this decades ago: “The coming stage of evolution . . . won’t be driven by physical adaptation but by human consciousness, creativity, and spirit.” Let that sink in. The next stage of evolution might be the expansion of human consciousness, which might include some form of shared consciousness, perhaps through more evolved capacities for empathy. Perhaps thousands of years hence, human minds will have so evolved that our progeny will have heighted awareness and greater creativity and deeper relatedness. Humanity is evolving in how we think. Mind blown.

Biblical language anticipates evolutionary concepts when, for instance, St. Paul describes Jesus as the “new Adam.” Jesus might be the first budding on the evolutionary tree of the new humanity that reveals what the next stage of evolution might look like. Christ consciousness might be luring us in that direction of compassion and peace when we truly understand our interrelatedness. And this new iteration of human consciousness “has come near,” to borrow another phrase from Matthew. This new perspective, this new vision of God’s realm, is “at hand.”

Non-Christian religious voices today similarly insist that a new mindset, a new way of thinking, is possible—and needed. The Dali Lama said: “All the world’s major religions, with their emphasis on love, compassion, patience, tolerance, and forgiveness can and do promote inner values. But the reality of the world today is that grounding ethics in religion is no longer adequate. This is why I am increasingly convinced that the time has come to find a way of thinking about spirituality and ethics beyond religion altogether.”

Non-religious voices foresee a paradigm shift, and one of the most interesting is Daniel Pink. His 2005 bestseller, A Whole New Mind, argues that Western society is shifting from “left brain” data-driven, linear, polarizing, analytical ways of thinking that served us in the information age—to a new way of thinking that still values rational thought but links it with “right brain” capacities for connections, inventiveness, intuition, empathy, joy, and meaning-making. These abilities some have classified as more “feminine” ways of knowing the world. Dan Pink believes that individuals and organizations in the future will need “a whole new mind” to combine the processes generated in the right and left hemispheres of the human brain. In order to create artistic and emotional beauty, to craft satisfying narratives, to combine seemingly unrelated ideas, to understand the subtleties of human interactions, to pursue purpose, to find and elicit joy—our brains will have to develop in ways that maximize connections between the right and left hemispheres.

I said Dan Pink is a secular writer. Indeed, he’s usually classified as a political, business, and economic writer. But I see spiritual lessons implicit in the observations he makes about the next age of human thinking that is already “at hand.” See if you hear a spirituality undergirding the six elements of this new way of thinking that accentuates the capacities of the previously less-valued right hemisphere of the brain:

1) The new way of thinking values and creates beauty, says Pink. As we move from the information age to what Pink calls the conceptual age, we will increasingly value beauty and design just as much as we value utility and functionality. A new invention must not simply work well but be designed beautifully. Increasingly, we will recognize the way the beauty of the natural world and the beauty of human culture feed the human spirit. So it seems to me that to neglect arts education in our schools, for instance, will be seen as an assault on human development. To honor and cultivate beauty in the natural world and in the arts is a spiritual duty. Evolving Christianity worship is already being characterized in part by its love of art and its evocation of awe. To repent—to take on the new mind—is a process that heightens our love of beauty and our experiences of wonder.

2) The new way of understanding the world also prizes stories. We increasingly will use narratives rather than arguments to reach new insights and to persuade others—in the fields of commerce, politics, science, and other social and intellectual enterprises. Stories don’t reduce the world to either-or thinking. Interpretable stories make room for complexity. Likewise, storytelling as a spiritual discipline is growing in practice. For so long, we’ve thought of Christianity as a set of propositions to which we had to assent. But from the beginning Christianity was a story about Jesus—who himself taught his followers through stories. As our last church-wide retreat emphasized, storytelling can heal individual hearts and forge stronger faith communities. In fact, it is through our ability to imagine new scripts for our lives that we can live into hopeful new futures. Evolving Christianity is a process of repenting a solely data-driven perspective and re-appreciating stories in both secular and sacred arenas.

3) The new way of thinking favors synthesis. We don’t want to pay attention just to the details and categories but also to the big picture, the overarching patterns. We need to see the connections and the wholeness. Similarly, an evolving spirituality appreciates, for instance, not just the single moment or one action or even one human life—but a larger context and a grander and collaborative enterprise of life and love. An evolving Christian spirituality is looking for connections and union rather than distinctions and divisions, a oneness in the Cosmic Christ.

4) The new way of thinking appreciates empathy and intuition, says Pink. In other words, although logic remains essential, we must go beyond rationality to engage our emotions. This quality of perception is at the heart of Christian spirituality. The truly wise ones will sense what others are feeling. As Jesus taught, as all the world’s great religions concur, compassion is our aim, and love is the universal commandment. When we can finally love our neighbor as ourselves, we’ll have achieved the new way of thinking that Jesus modeled and taught.

5) The new way of thinking values playfulness. Pink says humor and play are keys to the “new” mind. Inventiveness and creativity require some spontaneity. A whimsical mind may stumble upon something unexpected. And a playful spirit will find joy, a deeply spiritual gift. Jesus used humor and novelty to teach. He took time to rest and refresh. We need to repent of too much solemnity.

6) The new way of thinking is one that makes meaning. Pink concludes by getting explicitly spiritual when he says that because we’ve evolved in ways that give us the luxury of not merely surviving, we can pursue purpose, transcendence, and spiritual fulfilment. I’ll add that faith communities are meaning-making communities.

Dan Pink is not arguing that aptitudes—for creating beauty, telling stories, seeing patterns, feeling empathy, being playful, and making meaning—are brand new human capacities. He’s saying we’re starting to prize these qualities in new ways and to combine them with the more left-brain skills that were in ascendency in the information age, now ending. I’m pointing out that there is a spiritual component to the evolution of the mind, and Jesus taught that we could learn new views of the world. He recognized that cultures trap people in restrictive mindsets.

So let’s return briefly to the Gospel reading for today and get to the other words in Jesus’s first proclamation. We’re to “repent” because “the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Notice that this story about repenting, which is about changing our way of thinking, is rooted in a specific context.

The Roman Empire is responsible for the mindset that John, and then Jesus, hoped to change. This particular story begins after John has been arrested by Herod. That news propels Jesus into his own ministry preaching repentance and announcing a new kingdom that threatens the oppressive kingdom of Herod and the empire of Caesar. Matthew began his Gospel by establishing Jesus as the anti-king, the vulnerable baby king born in a manger being hunted by the powerful king. Next week we’ll hear in Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount more about the differences between God’s kingdom that blesses the poor and the powerless, and earthly kingdoms that oppress them. Jesus offers alternate values and a completely different way of viewing the world—for those who can repent.

Friends, you and I have the choice to understand our world in radically different ways and to open ourselves to the experience of God’s reign in our lives as we, like Peter, Andrew, James and John, follow Jesus. One reason we come together Sunday after Sunday is to participate right now in the kingdom that rejects empire building and instead, well–to use Dan Pink’s terms as we wait to hear Jesus’s beatitudes–cultivates beauty, stories, connections, empathy, playfulness, and purpose. That is the Good News.

PRAYER. O God, grant us a whole new mind that we may help usher in a new world already on its way. Amen

Category Prayer, Scripture
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