Since you are so eager for spiritual gifts, strive to excel in them for building up the church. Therefore, one who speaks in a tongue should pray for the power to interpret. For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unproductive. What should I do then? I will pray with the spirit, but I will pray with the mind also; I will sing praise with the spirit, but I will sing praise with the mind also. Otherwise, if you say a blessing with the spirit, how can anyone in the position of an outsider say the "Amen" to your thanksgiving, since the outsider does not know what you are saying? For you may give thanks well enough, but the other person is not built up. I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you; nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind, in order to instruct others alos, than ten thousand words in a tongue. Brothers and sisters, do not be children in your thinking; rather be infants in evil, but in thinking be adults.
I Corinthians 14:12b-20
Seems we are still on that subject
: the "building up of the church." First, let's note that "faith" in the New Testament is actually the word "trust." The Greek word is "pistis." It's primary meanings are: (1) that which causes trust and faith; (b) solemn promise; oath; trust (c) proof, pledge (2) trust, confidence, faith. We have layered it over with so many centuries of lamination that it is sometimes useful to strip away the varnish and see the word clearly again. "Faith" does not mean "irrational belief in an invisible sky being on no basis except fear and projected desires for an uber-parent." It means trust. And trust, ultimately, means acting in spite of vulnerability. It means, too, that we need each other.
Look again at what Paul says: "For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unproductive. What should I do then? I will pray with the spirit, but I will pray with my mind also; I will sing praise with the spirit, but I will sing praise with the mind also. Otherwise, if you say a blessing with the spirit, how can anyone in the posiiton of an outsider say the 'Amen' to your thanksgiving, since the outsider does not know what you are saying?" My immediate thought, on hearing that yesterday, was that Paul was talking about our theological discussion
. Theology, we like to say, engages only the head. But if it doesn't engage the spirit also, of what use is it? Kathleen Norris has excoriated theologians in her books, for what are usually very good reasons. Theologians, like all professions, develop their own jargon, and all too quickly, like all professions, they become another conspiracy against the laity. Surely that was the purpose of the Reformation, to end the divide between cleric and lay. And yet we have built it back up again. Who is there to save us from this miserable fate?
Now, of course, it is theology which divides us again. Theology tells us homosexuals and perhaps even women cannot offer the sacramental presence to others. Theology is our excuse, our scapegoat. It isn't that we hate gays ("Not that there's anything wrong with that!" ); it's that our theology tells us we cannot allow them into the priesthood. Don't blame us; but we must preserve our theology. Alternatively, it is our theology which tells us we must allow gays and lesbians and women to be priests, that this fulfills the vision of the basiliea tou theou
, of the basiliea tou ouranon
. And when theology fails to provide us a definitive answer, fails to give us salvation from ourselves, from our own fears of the other, we blame theology for being impractical, for not being our saviour.
And then we say that our group, alone, has the gifts which build up the church, because our theology tells us which is the proper church to be built up, and everyone prays for the power to interpret, but we make sure that power is interpreted to interpret only what we have already concluded is true. Because truth is so much easier to rely on than trust. Truth can be verified; trust must be taken on faith. And there we are: vulnerable again.
"Covenant" is another tough word. My seminary professors were anxious to remove it from any legal context, lest we confuse it with "contract." It was a wise distinction. A contract is a promise binding on the parties to it, one sealed by the offering of consideration, othe giving up of some small thing by the person accepting the contract in response to the offer made by the other party, who is bound to the contract once the consideration proferred in response is accepted. But that's how the law finds a contract exists, not how the law interprets the concept of contract in all its manifestations. The difference is that contracts can be broken, and are merely business arrangements, creations of law. Covenants were creations of law, too; but that word has taken on meanings which are supposed to transcend the limitations of contract law. A contract, after all, is enforceable against both parties, but only by a third party. You cannot enter into a contract with one other person on a desert island, unless there is a third party on the island who can enforce the terms of the contract against both of you. In a covenant, both parties agree to be bound by the terms of the arrangement, and both parties can be held accountable to their agreement: but only by each other. One party, also, cannot walk away from the agreement. It is binding, and both parties remain bound to it.
That, at least, is the cosmological thinking that tries to explain the covenant between the God of Abraham and human beings, whether it is the covenant with the descendants of Abraham, or the "new covenant" established between the Risen Lord and all believers. Covenant is a very charged word, but again, it includes a necessary element of vulnerability. When God called Abraham to walk before God and be righteous, and promised Abram land of his own, and descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky, Abram had no basis on which to believe God would do these things. Abraham was called to act only on trust. He could not act on past experience, on knowledge that the things God promised were true and could be trusted. Abraham could not even act on the promise that what was promised would come true in his lifetime. God said Abraham would be blessed, and through him all the nations of the world would be blessed; but that couldn't possibly come true in Abraham's lifetime. And yet Abraham believed.
Everything, you see, begins with Abraham
And it all begins with trust, when you have no basis upon which to make trust. Paul is making essentially the same offer to the church in Corinth. "Srive to excel in them for building up the church." He knows we are selfish creatures, that we want something because there is something for us in it, and we, unlike Abraham, want the results right now. But Paul directs us outward, through ourselves toward the other. "...if you say a blessing with the spirit, how can anyone in the position of an outsider say the 'Amen' to your thanksgiving, since the outsider does not know what you are saying?" This is the challenge to theologians, to explain themselves clearly. This is the challenge to all members of the church, cleric as well as laity, to speak from the spirit, but speak clearly. The spirit may be personal, or even transcendent; but if you do not speak through the mind, how am I to know what you are saying? What good is it to me, to the body of Christ, the church?
This is a challenge to everyone, even to the Philip Jenkins' of the church, who champion a "conservative" over a "liberal" theology (there is much more to be said on this topic). But it is a challenge to liberals, too. Is the church about to die if it does not change? Perhaps in post-Enlightenment Western European culture, it is; but that is not so obvious as it might seem. Is the church only the church in European culture? What then of the Orthodox? Of the Copts? Of the Church in Africa? Conversely, is the church only the church when it is "traditional"? But tradition, and my tradition? Hang it all, there can only be one "tradition"! Right?
What should I do then? I will pray with the spirit, but I will pray with the mind also; I will sing praise with the spirit, but I will sing praise with the mind also. Otherwise, if you say a blessing with the spirit, how can anyone in the position of an outsider say the "Amen" to your thanksgiving, since the outsider does not know what you are saying? For you may give thanks well enough, but the other person is not built up.
What should I do then? What would build up the church? And what would tear it down? Paul addresses that, in his letter to the Corinthians. Clearly what they are doing he thinks is tearing the church down; and he reminds them their focus should not be on them, but on the other, on the person "in the position of an outsider." Who can be anyone who is not you. That is the person you have to be concerned about. Even your thanksgiving to God should be given so that the outsider can say "Amen." Even your thanksgiving to God is not for your benefit, but so that someone else can join in. It comes from God; it goes to God; but it goes through you.
A grave responsibility, indeed. Enough to make you tremble.
One doesn't know why one trembles. This limit to knowledge no longer only relates to the cause or unknown event, the unseen or unknown that makes us tremble. Neither do we know why it produces this particular symptom, a certain irrepressible agitation of the body, the uncontrollable instability of its members or of the substance of the skin or muscles. Why does the irrepressible take this form? Why does terror make us tremble, since one can also tremble with mind, and such analogous physiological manifestations translate experiences and sentiments that appear, at least, not to have anything in common? This symptomatology is as enigmatic as tears.
But thus does the Spirit speak to us; with sighs too deep for words, with trembling that reaches down to the very core of our being; with thoughts that must be pressed through mind in order that others might hear and say: "Amen."
Let the reader understand. He who has ears, should listen.