Richard R. Crocker
“Renewing Our Minds”
October 14, 2012
This is the third in my series of sermons exploring the fundamental commandment to “love God with all our minds.” The first explored the commandment itself, as given to Moses and expanded upon by Jesus; the second considered Paul’s admonition that we should “have the mind of Christ”; tonight, we shall explore this wonderfully beautiful passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans instructing us not to be conformed to the world, but to “be transformed, by the renewal of our minds, so that (we) may discern the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
Long ago, in the 1830’s, when he was visiting America to describe and interpret the growth of democracy, Alexis DeTocqueville noticed a paradox. He noted that Americans prize their individualism, but that there is also a danger inherent in it. He noted that this individualism may easily lead to “the tyranny of the majority” - that is, that individuals will be tyrannized by public opinion. How can this be? Wouldn’t individualism lead to many, many different opinions? Yes, it should, but it also leads, all too often, to the tyranny of group think, in which conformity is enforced not by external authority but by internal acquiescence.
There is no more perfect example of this than a typical American high school, where non-conformity is cool, but everyone non-conforms in the same way, so that supposed non-conformity becomes conformity, and the true non-conformists are exiled as nerds or geeks or losers. Most of you have been there; you know what I mean. And most Dartmouth students were exiles, were true non-conformists in high school. You were nerds; you were over-eager students; you were over-achievers; you were not cool.
But then you came to Dartmouth. And although I said that there is no more perfect example of individualism deteriorating to the tyranny of the majority than the typical American high school, I will have to take it back. There is a more perfect example: it is Dartmouth College, where a group of nerds gather, and in their desperate attempt to overcome social anxiety and become cool, most quickly conform to expected social roles. Although there are of course significant exceptions, I would have to say that, in my opinion, Dartmouth college represents a strong culture of conformity.
We should not be surprised. Human beings thrive in a herd. We are not creatures made for individualism. The true dissenter is always an outcast, until she or she finds their own group. Very few of us can stand erect amid the torrents of public opinion.
Paul was not calling the Romans to be isolated individuals, but he was calling them to be part of a non-conformist community. And, in the Roman Empire of his day, being a non-conformist was even more dangerous than in ours. The Romans were very tolerant and pluralistic in most matters. People could worship as they choose, have the Gods they choose, follow the customs they choose – except for the demand that everyone swear allegiance to the emperor. Failure to make an offering to the emperor was a capital crime because it was deemed a threat to Roman civilization. So Christians in Rome - and Jews, who had a special dispensation - were a group of non-conformists. Paul’s admonition to them that they not be conformed to the world was personal, spiritual, and political. Rather, their whole lives were to be transformed, because they had a new way of seeing things, a new way of thinking; their minds had been changed by the story and the continued presence of the crucified savior, the one who they now called Lord, confessing “Jesus is Lord” and refusing to say, as was required, “Caesar is Lord”, thereby risking, at best, banishment, and, at worst, death.
Paul knew the cost of such allegiance. That is why he spoke in the language of sacrifice:” I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, that you present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” – a sacrifice that he himself endured and embodied, by his own execution.
So what does this mean for us? Whenever I heard this passage preached, referred to, or discussed, as I was growing up, it was taken as an exhortation to sexual purity and abstention from unhealthy substances. I do not think this was really Paul’s his primary focus, but I would say that in a culture where drunkenness and hooking up are common, it is still an interpretation that has value. To refrain from drunkenness and hooking up at Dartmouth is, I think, a healthy kind of non-conformity. But Paul’s real admonition is not toward a specific kind of morality, but toward embracing a different kind of mind. He described that mind in his letter to the Philippians, when he described the mind of Christ – “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:5-8)
The renewal of our mind, according to Paul, means making our minds new by thinking a different way, by forgetting all the false ambitions that drive us, and by cultivating the kind of compassion and humility that we see in Jesus. That’s what we are called to do. That is the mind we seek.
I have a good friend who is a professor of Buddhism, and, in order to talk to him more intelligently, I have been reading a book by the Dalai Lama that describes the various levels of Buddhist practice. Some of you may know that the aim of Buddhist practice is to cultivate a different kinds of mind – a mind full of compassion. And while I do not agree with the basic Buddhist notion of reincarnation, I find the mind of compassion that the Dalai Lama describes to be something very much akin to the mind of Christ, to which we aspire.
Buddhism prescribes techniques of meditation as a means for renewing our minds. Many people, including many Christians, testify to the value of meditation. In its simplest form, meditation means uncluttering our minds – renewing them in quietness. Christian meditation has another focus. It is the cross – that point to which all our minds are drawn. In our cluttered lives, we seldom think about death, suffering, and injustice. We just plow ahead in the great scramble of conformity along the road of our own ambitions. Paul urges us not to be conformed to the world, but to be transformed by the renewal of our minds by thinking about the will of God. That is why I think worship is so important. It is the time when, amid the clutter of the world, we renew our minds, seeking what is good and acceptable and perfect. My hope is that this worship service, and all the worship services we attend, will help us to do just that. Amen.