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|The Beatitudes, or, What I said at Sunstone|
Aug. 13th, 2007 at 6:07 pm
This is my response to Jody England Hansen’s fine paper on the Beatitudes, delivered Saturday afternoon at Sunstone.
If you can’t tell, I’m a closet Lutheran.
Jody reminds us of something terribly important, and that is the essential paradox of the Beatitudes, which is the essential paradox of Christianity itself. This is, as Christ put it, that to find our lives we must lose them; to gain that which is most worthwhile we must sacrifice that which seems most comfortable. We must be poor and poor in spirit, we must hunger and thirst, we must be meek, we must choose peace when faced with contention. If we seek to gain the kingdom of God, we must, in short, first acknowledge that we are none of us worthy of it. And then we must spend our lives in struggle with this fact.
As Jody writes, â€œThis is no casual thing that Christ asks of us.â€ She tells us that the Beatitudes renounce a gospel of routine; they renounce a gospel that soothes us in superficial ways or does nothing more than make us at ease with ourselves, they renounce a gospel that allows us to be satisfied with our life or how we live it. In short, they remind us that the gospel of Christ, paradoxically, is simultaneously both painful and good news, and that, if we are living it, being it, in the right way, it is always, always both. Therein lies its profundity.
The Beatitudes teach us that transcendence is vertical, not horizontal. That is, they tell us that we are both in this world and not of it, and that the sublimity God offers is not to be achieved here. Now, I donâ€™t mean this in the shallow way that has us looking over our shoulder or peeking around the corner of the streets of Babylon in fear of looming opportunities to sin, and neither did the Christ of the Beatitudes. Rather, the Beatitudes tell us that the world is part of ourselves â€“ embedded in our very human nature, in our desires for comfort and security that lead us to indolence and pleasure-seeking, and in the fear that drives us to deny our own vulnerabilities and surround ourselves with walls of inadvertent selfishness and self-righteous complacency with our own imagined virtues. This, in Mormon parlance, is the natural man; our knee-jerk impulse to act according to our own self interest, to lash out, to react rather than act, as Lehi might say, and to seek the grace that fills the holes in our souls in self-actualization, in pride, in consumption, in doing the easy thing. But this, Christ tells us, is not where grace is to be found.
The Beatitudes, rather, tell us that the mourners, the empty, the poor in spirit shall be filled and blessed and inherit the kingdom of God. In doing so, they are not only teaching us, they are judging and convicting us, in the fullest meaning of the term. They are reminding us that we are flawed, and, paradoxically, urging us to embrace that very weakness. Would we seek the kingdom of heaven? Then we must be poor. Do we crave mercy? Then we must be merciful. Do we wish to inherit Godâ€™s earth? Then we must be meek. But â€“ but – we are not these things, or do not want to be. Jesus here reminds us, gently, but truly, of our pride and our fear, the anxieties that lead us to seek meaning and self justification elsewhere â€“ as Jody points out, in the transience of possessions, or the satisfaction of blaming others, or the ease of rationalization. And we do these things because the gospel is hard. And not merely in its most paltry incarnation as a simplistic moral code, a set of doâ€™s and donâ€™ts; but in the terrible awareness that it forces upon us. To hear Christâ€™s words is to remember the degree to which we are fooling ourselves about our own goodness. To hear Christâ€™s words is to learn humility, to learn to judge ourselves, to be constantly aware that we fall short of the glory of God and that all our justifications â€“ our pain, our fear, our greed – are insufficient and no substitution for being what Christ asks of us. And to realize this, paradoxically, is to gain transcendence, to attain a relationship between ourselves and our God made pure by the rejection of our own pride.
Thus, the Beatitudes can be the hardest of all things to hear, but it means that they are the surest form of prophecy â€“ that is, they are the word of God, calling us to repentance, to acknowledge our flaws and seek to redeem them. But they also tell us that, again, paradoxically, our weakness is our strength. And this is the grace that we can find in darkness, for, as we undertake the surrender that the Beatitudes ask of us â€“ as we become weak, and poor in heart, and are persecuted for the sake of this new righteousness, as we accept our flaws and no longer hide behind the angry walls of pride â€“ there, Christ promises us, there when we accept his conviction of that pride â€“ we almost inadvertently stumble upon our salvation, and we can find the blessings that lie in store, the beauty of a mature faith, predicated not on personal satisfaction, but on serenity, humility, and unselfish love of God.
On the cross, in the garden, there we see Christ himself exemplifying the Beatitudes. In the course his passion we see the principles he taught on the mountain. We see Christ on his knees in suffering, Christ pleading his own inadequacy to his Father, acknowledging his insufficiency and his fear, and asking for the cup to pass from him â€“ and by the very acknowledgment finding the strength to overcome his weakness. We see Christ tormented, Christ punished, Christ mocked and sorely tempted by the Romans to lash out and descend from the cross in rage and glory. But then we see him reject the corruptions of selfishness, the self-interested use of power to end his pain, rejecting the temptations of vengeance and indulgent self-defense. Instead, we find him bowing his head, embracing meekness, and in so doing fulfilling the promise of his greatness. And because of this denial we see Christ, through perfect weakness, triumph over death and sin and hell, and through perfect humility make our own salvation possible.
The beatitudes, then, are why I am a Christian â€“ to the extent that I am – and I want to thank Jody for giving me the opportunity to muse on them today.