Thursday, October 28, 2010

What is truth? - Richard R. Crocker

What is truth?
Rollins Chapel
October 27, 2010
Richard R. Crocker
John 18:37-38 John 14:5-7 1 John 3:18-19 John 8:32

What is truth? It’s a big question to explore, much less answer, in ten minutes, so early in the morning.

But we can make a few observations. The question was posed by Pontius Pilate, to Jesus, during his trial. But note what prompted Pilate’s question. He said it in response to Jesus’ assertion “for this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.”

Now what kind of truth are we talking about? Because there are different kinds. There are truths that we know by definition. Most of these are mathematical. 2 plus 2 is four, by definition. That is not, I think, the kind of truth that Jesus was talking about, nor is it the kind of truth that most interests us. There are other truths that are discovered by investigation, many of them scientific. Such truths are descriptive and always subject to revision. When Newton discovered the law of gravity, he discovered a “truth”. Gravity as a theory doesn’t interest me much either, though I am very much affected by it. But there is another kind of truth that interests me, and I expect all of us, very much – and it is the truth we discover for ourselves, through experience, and through the testimony of others, Jesus says he came to testify to the truth – not to prove it. Testimony is a way of getting to the truth of a complex situation. In a trial, testimony is given to help us determine the truth, and the truth is usually not simple. Pilate’s question, “What is truth?” can be understood as a cynical statement, signifying his conviction that there is no such thing as truth, or perhaps as a sincere statement, signifying his experience that truth is hard to discover. In either case, it is interesting to note that Jesus did not, at his trial, answer the question.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Whom Shall I Send? - Richard Crocker

Whom Shall I Send?
Rollins Chapel
Richard R. Crocker
October 20, 2010
Isaiah 6:1-8

Last week Kurt explored the questions: Who am I, and who shall I become?

This week: “Whom Shall I send?” It is a similar question, and you may notice some overlap in our remarks.

Whom shall I send? The question occurs in this passage from Isaiah, which describes an ecstatic, mystical experience that occurred, apparently, in the temple in Jerusalem, where Isaiah had a vision of the holiness of God and of his own sinfulness, and where he heard the voice of God asking, “Whom shall I send?” One might well ask, send where? To do what? But Isaiah was so caught up in the moment that he did not ask; he simply responded,” send me.” Only afterwards did he find out what he was sent to do.

Would that all of us had such a powerful experience to bring us to a sense of vocation. But most of us settle for a job. A job is an activity for which someone will pay us. It is a way of trading labor for money. It is a way of making a living. We worry about getting jobs, since they are scarce. But a job is different from a vocation. A vocation is a calling. It is something that cries out to us to be done, that engages our energies and emotions and skills and interests, that we will do not simply to make a living, not chiefly to make money, but to make a life.

Almost any job can become a vocation if it somehow has a transcendent dimension – if it feeds your soul. Any work that is done chiefly for the common good, for the glory of God, rather than for private gain, can become a vocation.

The novelist/minister Frederich Buechner, whom Kurt quoted last week, once said that your vocation is where your deep joy and the world’s great need meet. He explained that things that bring us no joy cannot be our vocation, but things that do not meet the world’s need also cannot be a vocation. The two must coincide. Thus, we have many joyless lawyers, even though there may be a need for good lawyers. There may also be joyful investment bankers, but I confess that I can’t see that the world needs any more investment bankers. I may be wrong. But I think Buechner is right. Our vocation must both bring us joy and meet a deep need in the world.

In the case of Isaiah, however, it’s hard to know what joy he got. Being a prophet – really a prophet – is a singularly dangerous and unrewarding job. A prophet, as Jesus said, is very likely to be stoned. The prophet speaks a message that the world needs to hear, but that almost no one wants to hear it. My divinity school at Vanderbilt had an inscription over the door “The school of the Prophets.” Needless to say, enrollment was always low. Prophets are unusual. Almost all of them have the experience that God predicted when Isaiah said, “Send me.” God said: “Go and say to this people: keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand. Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes….” This is a hard task: to speak words to people so offensive that they will shut their eyes and stick fingers in their ears. But, for the love of God, and the love of the world, sometimes this is what must be done. While I would not necessarily call Al Gore a prophet, certainly his message of an inconvenient truth, has met with steadfast resistance. Gandhi’s message of nonviolence and Martin Luther King’s, both, echoing, of course, Jesus – what currency do they command?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Who Am I and Who Ought I Become?

 Kurt Nelson
Who Am I and Who Ought I Become?
October 13, 2010.  Exodus 2

I suspect every college graduate,
past, present or future,
has faced the question:
"What are your plans for after graduation?”
Dozens.  Perhaps hundreds of times.

Professors ask.  And administrators, and family members.
classmates, casual acquaintances, people on the street.
Early in one’s education,
it seems innocent enough.
But later in one’s career,
as choice and expectation team up,
it tends to become burdensome and perhaps even annoying.

But I admit, I've asked.
And I’ll continue to ask,
because it’s still far more polite and effective,
than asking directly the question behind the question:
who are you, and who you think you ought to become?

We've ventured boldly outside the biblical corpus,
for this week’s Big Question.

 “Who am I and who ought I become?”
has been attributed variously to the great and illustrious President
William Jewett Tucker,
and to the great and current Assistant Chaplain,
Kurt Nelson.
But at least its immediate origins,
it stems from the inaugural speech,
of the Tucker Foundation's first Dean, Fred Berthold.
Fred -
like President Tucker before him,
sought to find a way to honor the broad, Christian work to which he was called,
while keeping in mind the challenge of the missionary zeal
upon which Dartmouth was founded.
And this question was his answer.

This question was, and I hope is,
at the heart of not only the Tucker Foundation,
but the entirety of our liberal arts education.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Eternal Life? - Richard Crocker

 What must I do to inherit eternal life?
Richard R. Crocker
Rollins Chapel
October 6, 2010
Mark 10:17-22

What must I do to inherit eternal life? This is a very difficult question to explore, much less answer, in less than ten minutes. I do note, however, that Jesus answered it in about 30 seconds.
The question requires that we answer three other independent questions. Those questions are: What do we mean by eternal life? Is there such a thing? If so, is it for some, for all, or for none of us? And, if it is possible for any of us, how do we get it? It is this last question that the man addressed to Jesus.

What do we mean by eternal life? Well, there is some confusion. Sometimes in scripture the word “everlasting” is used – which implies life that never ends. This is a popular understanding. We go to heaven and live forever – on and on and on and on…….. But the word eternal is different. It refers to life outside of time. Time is a dimension that dominates our earthly existence. There seems to be no escape from it. Yet, as we have come to surmise, reality has many dimensions, far more than the three or four familiar to us. Eternal life is life in a different dimension, outside of time.

If that is so, if eternal life is life in a different dimension, we may yet ask, “is there such a thing?” And the only honest answer to that question is, “we do not know.” Absolutely no one KNOWS if there is such a thing. It is beyond our comprehension, beyond our capacity. Many people today, convinced that human beings are essentially an assembly of molecules, assume that there can be no life apart from those molecules. But that is a belief, a faith, that goes beyond what we can possibly know. Others believe, hope, have faith that our essential life partakes of other dimensions, and that our lives are not conquered by time. The evidence for this belief is also not convincing to everyone. Although some belief in life beyond this one is present in almost every human culture, so much so that it seems intuitive, or ingrained in human being, the belief is not beyond question. For Christians, the evidence is in the transcendent life of Jesus, which was revealed in a new dimension after his death. But while this evidence is held dear by Christians, many others, especially in our materialistic world, cannot give it any credit. So the answer to the question, “Is there such a thing?”, is “We do not know.” But we do know that such belief is common in human life and is essential to the Christian story.

So the third question: if there is such a thing as eternal life, is it possible for any of us humans – and, if so, for only some or for all? Here again, traditional Christian thought runs up against the spirit of the age, which seems to convince many that eternal life is not possible for any human being. But, while Christians are united in their belief that it is possible, they are divided on whether it is for some or for all. Most have said it is for all – though traditionally, the bliss of eternal life is for some, while the torment of eternal life is for others. This great schema – the story of creation, the fall into sin, the redemption of the world through the sacrifice of Jesus, and judgment of the world, following which some will enter heaven and others will be condemned to hell – has been the organizing schema of Christian civilization. Both heaven and hell are seen as eternal. For many Christians this traditional teaching is still convincing. For others, however, the know about God through the revelation of Jesus Christ.