Friday, March 4, 2011

Servant Love in an Age of Self Love

February 27, 2011

1 Corinthians 4: 1-5

“From parent to president” is a line that is used by Edwin H. Friedman in his book, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. Friedman upholds the vision that all people are leaders, from parents to presidents. As leaders, they are responsible to do what is right for the world in which they find themselves.
Paul, in First Corinthians, also speaks about leadership. He begins by speaking of the leadership of those who follow in the footsteps of the apostles, but goes on to say that this responsibility is transferred to all believers. All believers have the responsibility to do what is right for the world in which they find themselves.

OverviewWe are going to look at three assumptions related to human beings and their capacity to do what is right:
First, we will look at the assumption that human beings are superior to other living creatures;
Second, we will look at the assumption that human beings will naturally do what is right;
Third, we will look at the assumption that doing what is right will make us happy.

Point One: The assumption that human beings are superior to other living creatures.
Recently, the television game show, Jeopardy, featured a competition between two champions and an IBM computer named Watson. During the week long competition, vignettes were shown highlighting the capacity of this computer. One such vignette highlighted the benefits that Watson could bring to the field of medicine. Just after that feature, final jeopardy appeared on the game board. The question was under the heading, U.S. Cities, and spoke of a city that had two airports named after either a person or event in World War 2. Watson answered, “Toronto.” – which we know, is not even a U.S city.

James Bennet, in the March 2011 edition of The Atlantic, in an editorial, asks the question, “What is it that we humans do well?” He asks this question to Eric Schmidt, the chairman of Google. Schmidt claims, “We are approaching an age of augmented humanity.” Later in the magazine, Brian Christian makes this observation, “Humanity’s once expansive sense of its own uniqueness has been eroding over the past century. On one side, the recognition of a greater capacity in animals than we first thought. On the other side, we see the advance of computers which have the capacity to perform actions once thought limited to humanity.

Bennet writes, “We should probably take it as a backhanded compliment from Mother Nature that the very qualities we once thought made us unique, our abilities to feel and reason, are now leading us to realize we may not be so special after all. We have been left with a less exalted sense of ourselves not only because other entities turned out to share some of our powers, but also because we often didn’t act much like angels when we applied those powers.”

We may not be superior to other living creatures as we once thought.
Consider the words of the Apostle Paul, in chapter 1, verses 26 and 27, “ Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.” And then, from chapter 4, verse 1, “Think of us in this way, as servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries.
In this less than perfect form of humanity, God has placed the treasure of the Word of God, and made us stewards of the very mystery of the divine purpose of God.

Point Two: The assumption that human beings will naturally do what is right.
The ethics of Immanuel Kant and his writing, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, is summarized by Andrews Reath in the anthology, The Classics of Western Philosophy.
For Kant, religion is not an intellectual matter, but an ethical matter. Three examples are given of determining a ethical action:
1. The Prudent Merchant. This merchant charges a fair price, but does this because it is good for business. He does not do this out duty, but out of self-interest.
2. The Friend of Humanity. This person takes immediate pleasure in helping others. He acts out of the reward of enjoyment that comes from the action. Thus, he is not doing this out of duty, but out of self-interest.
3. The Friend of Humanity. This person has concern for the well-being of others, but is so burdened by personal sorrows, that he has no sympathy. He acts anyway. His action is done out of duty.

Duty, and action out of duty, is the imperative. One then asks if the duty is a universal imperative. A certain duty becomes an imperative if it is required of all people in all times and in all places. Then, it becomes a standardized principle of conduct for all. This determination, claims Kant, the ability to discern this duty comes out of human reason. It assumes that people will not act out of his or her own desires, but will set them aside.
Shakespeare captures this concept in Hamlet,

What a piece of work is a man,
How noble in reason,
How infinite in faculties,
In form and moving how express and admirable,
In action how like an angel,
In apprehension how like a god!

We may not naturally do what is right as we first thought.
Paul shares his personal struggle in doing what is right in Romans 7: 15ff., “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that swells within me…I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”
Into this less than perfect human form, God places the greatest treasure and calls us to engage in the hard work of discerning what is right.

Point Three: The assumption that doing what is right will make us happy.
The movie, The Bad Seed, is based on a play. The play explores the nature vs. nurture argument in relationship to mental illness. In the play, a girl, whose mother murders her brother and attempts to murder her, is adopted into a loving and nurturing family. When the girl becomes an adult, marries, and has a daughter, she starts to observe a terrifying quality in her daughter. The daughter has murdered a classmate who won a spelling test a school. The child was murdered for the medal the champion received. Subsequently, the girl murders two others who suspect her of the act.

The play ends with the girl escaping any punishment. When the screenplay was submitted to censors, a change had to made in the ending. At that time, Hollywood was not allowed to have a criminal avoid punishment in a movie. By the end of the movie, the criminal had to receive justice. To accommodate that stipulation, the screenwriters have the girl struck with lightning and killed. The whole event is wrapped in a neat bow.
We are attracted to that hope that wrong will be punished and good will be rewarded. As a result, we assume that doing what is right will make us happy.

Eric Wilson, in his book, Against Happiness, states, “This captures our world of personal dreams, a realm from which hard reality has largely been vanquished. We necessarily expect every torment moment to yield nothing but new bliss. It is the persistent intonation of ‘I’m fine.’”
We may not be happy by doing what is right.
As the pundits say, “No good deed goes unpunished.” To think that good acts will make us happy creates in us a spiritual dilemma when our good actions are not rewarded with bliss.
Into this less than perfect human form, God places the greatest treasure and calls us to engage in the hard work of discerning what is right without the promise of the reward of happiness.

As we fully engage ourselves in lives of caring for the treasure God has given to us, striving to discern what is right, and living without the promise of happiness from those actions, are thoughts, time, energy, and action are engaged in that striving to be faithful. And, if we are engaged in that faithful striving, then we have less inclination and compunction to be judgmental of others. Here is where Paul ties up the first four chapters of Corinthians. Judgment is not ours to hold. We do not judge ourselves. We do not judge others. In God’s hands is the power of judgment. That judgment is brought to bear on humanity through the death of Jesus Christ on the cross.

We live as people who are no longer engaged in the damned and saved argument. We live as people who are no longer engaged in the damned if you do, and damned if you don’t self abuse. We live as people who no longer see others as either damned or saved. We, instead, engage in a life of service to one another.

That, my brothers and sisters, is the calling of all people, from parents to presidents.

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