Sunday, July 22, 2007

Puzzles and Mysteries (Cockrell)

A Dialogue on Puzzles & Mysteries
by The Rev. Ernest W. Cockrell, in dialogue with The Rev. Thomas B. Woodward

Editor's note: The Rev. Ernest Cockrell initially posted the first version of these comments on the House of Bishops and Deputies listserv. The Episcopal Majority invited him to post it on our site. He has slightly edited that HoBD posting for distribution to a wider audience.

Writing "Risks and Riddles" in the June 27 issue of Smithsonian (page 98), Gregory F. Treverton opened a new paradigm for me that may address the situation we Episcopalians face within our denomination and within the Anglican Communion, as he differentiates between a puzzle and a mystery:
There's a reason millions of people try to solve crossword puzzles each day. Amid the well-ordered combat between a puzzler's mind and the blank boxes waiting to be filled, there is satisfaction along with frustration. Even when you can't find the right answer, you know it exists. Puzzles can be solved; they have answers.

But a mystery offers no such comfort. It poses a question that has no definitive answer because the answer is contingent; it depends on a future interaction of many factors, known and unknown. A mystery cannot be answered; it can only be framed, by identifying the critical factors and applying some sense of how they have interacted in the past and might interact in the future. A mystery is an attempt to define ambiguities.

Puzzles may be more satisfying, but the world increasingly offers us mysteries. Treating them as puzzles is like trying to solve the unsolvable - an impossible challenge. But approaching them as mysteries may make us more comfortable with the uncertainties of our age.
In that paradoxical context, think of the primary "risks and riddles" that seem to haunt and separate us in the church today: interpretations of Scripture and of sexuality. It seems that many of us are treating both as "puzzles," when - from all our experience of both through the ages - they are "mysteries." Both are out of reach of ever completely "figuring them out"; both are grounded in the future, as much as they are the past.

What if all of us acknowledged the mystery of Scripture and sexuality, as each of us tries to come to terms with both as best we can, the "mystery" part allowing us a bit of leeway - a margin of acceptance - for each of our understandings, leaving behind any vestige of self-righteousness that surely is not the mind of Christ?

Having recently retired from Saint Andrew's Episcopal Church (Saratoga, California), I've been given the gift of attending services at sister parishes around the Diocese of El Camino Real. In the Scriptures and liturgies and hymns, I keep finding a deep unity which supersedes differences of thought and belief - safe places to wrestle with the puzzles and mysteries which confront us in every sphere. If we can only remember to differentiate between the two, I think our path ahead could be clarified, and perhaps we could walk along together, celebrating both while focusing our attention and energy on service beyond ourselves in the name of Christ! I think Jesus would like that!

Ernest W. Cockrell+
Saratoga, California

About the Author: The Reverend Ernest W. Cockrell, a native Texhoman, is the recently-retired rector of Saint Andrew's Church & School in Saratoga, CA, after almost 15 years there, preceded by 25 years as rector of Saint Gabriel's, Marion, MA. Through those years he has worked via teaching and preaching to connect religion with 20th/21st -century reality, so that Episcopalians can be literate without being literal; to bring peace with justice and security to Palestine and Israel (and to the United States!), by honest reporting on the situation there, attempting to bring a balance to a one-sided view delivered to most Americans, especially through his SAMA' program, "listening" to the words of the peacemakers there: Christian, Muslim, and Jewish - summarized in the "Sama Song." In addition to serving a four-year term on the Standing Committee of the Diocese of El Camino Real, he has been a deputy to four General Conventions, serving on the Committee for National and International Affairs. As the author of one novel, several smaller books, and composer of a number of musicals, he is presently in the market for an agent!

Tom Woodward's Response to Ernest Cockrell

I am struck by Ernest Cockrell's piece. He reminds me of the wisdom of Jacques Maritain, who wrote, "Life is a mystery to be lived, not a problem to be solved."

There has been little appreciation for mystery is so many of the discussions throughout the church about Scripture and human sexuality. We have focused on the rightful interpretation of John 14:6 which has the Risen Christ saying, "I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father but by me." Some claim a literal truth for those words in a Gospel steeped in mystery and nuance, while others point to Biblical criticism and specific events noted in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke before the church's proclamation of its understanding in John's Gospel. While that dialogue/debate is important, it is also unproductive as long as it takes place outside the context of our awareness of mystery and of how very partial is our understanding and appreciation of the limits of our knowledge.

Ernest is right: mystery allows for the full presence of the other, while puzzles define the other as "in" or "out." Jesus taught with mystery – seldom, if ever, through puzzles. We still wrestle with the meaning of Jesus' parables. While we preach about his interactions with Mary and Martha, with the poor and the marginalized, with Zacchias and the Syro-Phoenician woman and with Pilate, we must know that we are dealing only with surface understanding and not with the mystery of two human beings of incredible complexity, much of which is not known and will never be known even to themselves. We do our best to deal with the puzzles. What does it mean that he sits at a table eating and drinking and telling stories with those the religious establishment has consigned to the garbage heap? It means more than a liberal theologian's facile words about inclusiveness, though those words are undoubtedly a part of the meaning and sense of the story.

Our dialogues and study will be different when we lay aside or at least put into perspective our labels and definitions. Paul's reference to such images as men "lying" with men has to do with actions completely separated from personhood. Paul, of course, should first have considered the personhood of those he consigned to damnation, for that is where he would have encountered the mystery he has foolishly ruled non-existent. Paul does, in other places (as in Galatians 5) look for the presence of God's blessing in persons' character rather than their characterizations. How different that is than what we find in Romans, where he reduces the image of God in thinking, feeling, spiritual persons to a function of his own fears and ignorance.

We can argue specifics as long as we want, but we will always fall short of understanding the sacramental nature of our humanity and our sexuality as long as our context is that of instrumentality rather than mystery. Our Christian theologies stand under judgment from the simplicity of our Jewish brothers and sisters. In his short book I and Thou, Martin Buber wrote movingly about the crucial elements of mystery and the holy as we think about and interact with one another and with God. Abraham Heschel, in Who Is Man, argues much the same thing, insisting that we take account of the full humanity of each other as we discern our way with others as religious people. Each and every one of us is a "thou." Anything short of that is a slight on our Creator.

Tom Woodward+
Santa Fe, New Mexico

Ernest Cockrell's Response to Tom Woodward

Tom Woodward fleshes out my reflection on puzzles and mysteries in very practical terms that are helpful in our continuing discussion on two points of conflict – Scripture and sexuality – as he focuses on the “sacramental nature of our humanity.”

I add only a couple of perspectives to his words, drawing from personal experience.

After a number of courses on the Bible in college, I had just about given up on any possibility of connecting religion with reality. I persuaded the dean of the divinity school to let me skip “bible courses,” focusing rather on Hebrew, theology, and other esoteric wanderings of the mind. But then I heard that the Old Testament professors were the world’s leading archaeologists, and I thought, “I can do that!” It was there that my conversion took place as I was able to read Scripture in its historical and cultural context.

Expanding that biblical world to include the New Testament, I have sought to integrate in my study and teaching the worlds of religion and reality, faith and reason – an easy step in the direction of that wonderfully Anglican three-legged stool of tradition, Scripture, and reason. My conclusion has been to affirm that we live in a biological and physiological world where “gravity works every time” – an ordered creation that includes an orderly progression of illnesses as well. That attempt at understanding is the “puzzle" part of creation.

However, there is more! I begin every explanation of scientific orderliness – whether in the physical world or the Bible – with the words, “We live in mystery.” There are always more facts to be discovered, so I really appreciate the words of the retiring primate of the (Anglican) Church of Ireland: “Lord, keep me always in the company of those who fearlessly seek the truth, and hide me under the shadow of thy wings from those who think they have found it.” That is a bit like one of my favorite sayings: “Never put a period where God has placed a comma.”

As I continue my quest to come to terms with real reality, I keep being led deeper into awesome mystery.

The more I learn of life, the more I stand in awe: intellect and spirit united as one, even as both keep their respectful boundaries. It’s not that puzzles are bad. Sometimes they can lead to the mystery. It is that puzzles are simply limited, penultimate, even as they are too often mistaken for the Ultimate. That’s where the mischief comes in! The word “idolatry” comes to mind. Remember that hymn text? “Time makes ancient good uncouth.” The eternal Spirit – the ultimate Mystery – keeps redefining “good.”

Let me come down to brass tacks from all of the above: It is especially painful to hear people using Holy Scripture as a force against other people in a way that – to my understanding - Jesus would have never approved. From my point of view, it is unseemly to use the Bible to baptize prejudice. Jesus’ interactions with “the poor and marginalized” revealed an inclusive Creator. Tom expressed it well and beautifully: “Mystery allows for the full presence of the other, while puzzles define the other as 'in' or 'out.'”

My note to the HoB/D listserv was a sincere effort to reach out to lay people and clergy of every persuasion. In real humility, I keep trying to live that inclusiveness I experience in the Jesus of the Gospels, even as I feel excluded by some literalist brothers and sisters who seem to judge others on the basis of a compartmentalized, selective choice of passages from Hebrew Scripture and from Paul’s letters read out of context. I accept their ideas, even if I think they are limited; they do not accept my ideas, even if they may be limited.

Where does this leave the Episcopal Church, with all the litigation spinning around us like an Oklahoma tornado? I think the only thing we can do is to keep being faithful to Jesus’ vision as each of us understands it, knowing that we are all acculturated, all aware that time really does make our definitions of good uncouth, and to try to be as patient with each other as our loving, forgiving God is with us!

Ernest W. Cockrell+


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