Commentary for the August 3, 2013 Sabbath School Lesson
“Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death.” Romans 8:1-2, NIV
One of the great joys in my life is during late June and early July when the late spring rains bring forth bushels of blossoms in our rose garden. White, peach, deep red, mauve, yellow, and tropical orange colors bring a party atmosphere to the summer yard. Hummingbirds, butterflies and dragonflies flit among the bushes intent upon errands that have continued for thousands of generations of both plants and animals. Each according to its purpose contributes to the continuation of life for the other. Life is the melody that plays on the summer breeze as the harmony of all these players gently spreads among the flowers.
Some might consider this a chaotic scene as no two blossoms are the same. Every leaf also has its own fractal geometry on display. The hummingbirds are each unique, as are the various insects whether flying or crawling. The sense of order one might expect from a honeybee returning repeatedly to the same rose bush is belied when the bee never takes the exact same flight path. Nor does the nectar harvester visit the same flowers in the same sequence each visit. A random diversity of behavior and appearance seem to be everywhere, yet somehow the overall impression is one of great harmony. How can things be so “out of control,” and yet be totally in control?
Often we define control as uniformity of behavior and appearance. We even praise those who manage to conform in both aspects to some golden standard. We call these the obedient ones. They do not threaten the status quo with random thoughts or actions. Yet, this is not the thought that comes to mind when we look at a rose garden. I have not heard someone exclaim about the flowers, “Look how obedient they are!” No, we praise the flowers for their beauty, not their uniformity. Perhaps that is because obedience is not why flowers bloom.
A rose simply blooms because it is a rose. It does not try to conform to a standard to prove it is a rose, but we can readily tell it is a rose, even so. If it is not a rose, no amount of attempted obedience to that standard could make it one. Supposing a lily could somehow sport thorns and produce rose petals, would it then be a rose? Maybe it would deceive some, but it would still be a lily trying to be a rose and not an actual rose. Being what we were meant to be may not be a question of obedience, but of purpose and harmony. The best thing a rose can be is a rose, and the best thing a lily can be is a lily. Maybe the best thing we can be as well is ourselves.
Unfortunately, there is no shortage of roses telling lilies to become roses, and even some lilies tell other lilies the same. Instead of encouraging one another to be what we are, we find it all too easy to try to make others over into our image. Those who acquiesce to this pressure we call “obedient.” Those who don’t are considered rebellious. Why do we find it so much easier to identify uniformity as good and diversity as bad? While we often equate uniformity and order with proper Christian behavior, maybe our attitude about this is more closely related to ancient Greek culture than to any divine endorsement. Greek understanding of the universe was dualistic, offsetting the nomos against the anomos. Loosely translated this is law against lawlessness. However, the difference encompasses far more. In essence it was often considered the difference between ordered predictability and utter chaos.
While this may be enough in some instances to drive the desire for uniformity, it becomes even more powerful when that order becomes identified with divine will and the chaos as against it. In that case, uniformity becomes good and diversity becomes evil. However, there is much that is neither black nor white but rather grey on the spectrum of morality. In such an ambiguous universe, a world view based on the nomos versus the anomos may present us with a false dichotomy.
Some Christians find such dichotomies comforting because it reduces faith to a simple matter of obedience to the good. They do not trouble themselves with ferreting out what is actually good, claiming that God has revealed that truth in the Bible or even in extra-biblical revelation. Armed with proof texts to back up their assertion, they seek to push others to obedience and conformity. However, life is rarely so clean. For instance, what help is this black-and-white thinking to a young obstetrician faced with a difficult birth where he must decide between the life of the mother or the child? Which choice then is the good one and which one the evil one? What proof text will resolve this difficulty? Dichotomies can have a way of producing these devil’s dilemmas. When we are unable to face these dilemmas because our dualistic faith has not given us the tools to cope with these problems, we can find ourselves pushed into the realm of theodicy. We can find it difficult to reconcile the concept of a benevolent God with the realities we encounter in our world.
Theologians spend much time and effort in crafting intricate apologetics intended to keep the ship of faith from running aground on these shoals of doubt. However, those shoals might not exist if we did not so fully identify ourselves with this ancient Greek understanding of the world. Perhaps there is a more inclusive way of understanding our world that also glorifies the God we believe created it. Maybe in some instances people, ideas, things and methods are not good or evil, but simply different. Perhaps it is possible to embrace those differences not based on the principle of uniformity, but rather the principle of harmony.
Harmony does not require uniformity in order to be beautiful. In fact, discordances and tension can even enhance the beauty of the melody. We see this when a piece composed in a major key suddenly gives way briefly to a relative minor chord. This produces unresolved tension which then resolves when the melody returns again to a major chord. The tension does not diminish the piece but draws us into the overall desire for harmony. It makes us one with the song.
We see this same interplay of diverse and contrasting colors and textures in the rose garden. Just as some Christians do to one another, we can attack the rose bush for its prickliness, but if we do, we may walk away with only wounds for our trouble. But if we accept the thorns as part of the garden and instead focus on the symphony of color and fragrance, our experience is a completely different one as we find ourselves uplifted and comforted by our presence in the garden.
We can learn much from the rose garden about ourselves. A rose continues to be a rose no matter what happens to it. Even trampled into the ground and crushed, a rose blossom will exude its fragrance into the world. It is not a matter of obedience that causes it to do so. Perhaps it should not be a matter of obedience for us to be whom and what we were created to be either. Maybe we were never created to all be in agreement and uniform in our opinions or ways. Could it be that those relationship tensions were all part of the plan to make the overall harmony more beautiful?
Perhaps the black-and-white dualism that says that everything is either good or evil has caused us to miss the rich palette of color that surrounds us. Is it possible to paint our world with color that glorifies the One who created it without the necessary starkness of a dichromatic effigy to our own moral misinterpretations? Can we integrate the tensions brought by those who disagree with us into our understanding in such a way as to make the overall harmony more attractive than before?
Perhaps we feel that heaven will be a place where no one ever disagrees with anyone else. Surely this might be the case in robotic heaven where every robot is programmed to the same program. However, robots do not grow and evolve. They simply remain the same until they wear out or are replaced by a newer model. But humans do evolve and change, and they often do so through cognitive tension. Competing ideas are resolved through compromise and mankind moves forward. When this tension is seen as evil, the process breaks down and tension becomes conflict. Ultimately, whoever is able asserts control and dominates the other party and unity is enforced, but harmony is lost and growth, both physical and spiritual, becomes harder and harder to achieve as fewer and fewer competing ideas are allowed to surface.
Emphasizing an obedient unity without allowances for the necessary tensions of diversity does not do justice to the revelation of Divine character in the world around us where every flower, every animal, every being, every snowflake, every grain of sand is unique and different and fulfills perfectly its place in the symphony of nature. Perhaps we should consider joining this Magnum Opus Dei and add the melody of our lives to its harmonies. A glorious riot of color and joy might be the result.