Forms Passing Away: Berkeley Senior Sermon

B31A18BE-F1A5-4A3F-8060-6F5BA2CA68CFHere’s my Berkeley senior sermon. It’s a bit different to the kind of thing I usually preach. It’s one of the few things I’ve put together which was very much designed to be spoken, rather than read. I also made the conscious decision to dive into a conceptual reading of Corinthians 7:26-29, and so preach from an explicitly philosophical/theological perspective. With that said, I hope it’s worth the read, and I hope that the pastoral import of the philosophical/theological manifests itself.

A dear friend described it—paraphrasing slightly—as articulating a ‘practice of how we might regularly evaluate what we presume to be normative, and why those presumptions might be what get in the way of our ability to experience mystery, chance, surprise, hope, grace.’ I think that’s exactly what I was trying to do.

For the present form of this world is passing away.

In our second reading today, Paul tells the Christians in Corinth that “the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none.” In other words, given everything’s going to get apocalyptic soon, be as if you weren’t what you are. In itself, this seems simple enough. It is complicated, however, by the verses right before, not included in our reading today. There, Paul writes that, “in view of the impending crisis, it is well for you to remain as you are. Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife.” In verse 26, then, ‘are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free.’ In verse 19, ‘let even those who have wives be as though they had none.’ Be married, and be as if you were not. Be—and be as if you weren’t.

There seems to be something paradoxical here, to me at least. One moment those married are told to stay as they are, the next to be as if they aren’t. I should say that I’ve skipped a line which might dissolve the paradox. But before getting to that, I want to dwell on the juxtaposition: not ‘to be or not to be,’ but to be, and to be as if not.

I’m going to read a beautiful passage from Stanley Cavell’s The Claim of Reason before continuing. Cavell writes, “when you say ‘I love my love’ [to a child], the child learns the meaning of the word ‘love,’ and what love is. That (what you do) will be love in the child’s world; and if it is mixed with resentment and intimidation, then love is a mixture of resentment and intimidation … All they know about this is what they have learned, and all they have learned will be part of what they are. And what will the day be like when they ‘realise’ what they ‘believe’ about what love is? And how will they stop believing it? What we learn is not just what we have studied; what we have been taught is not just what we have memorised.”

To be, and to be as if not.

Hearing Paul, my first question is this: what is it for myself to be what I am—or, what has myself learned to be? It’s a tricky question; what is yourself? Where have you learnt the terms you answer with? Is yourself loving, resenting? Is yourself a student, a priest, searching, something other? Partnered, single, neither, both, more? Male, female, both, neither, all? Anglo, Caribbean, Latinx, Hispanic, the continental constructions of African or Asian? Perhaps with a suffix ‘American,’ perhaps just American? And what do these terms mean; where and how did we learn who these selves are? Is yourself self-loving or self-loathing, or both? Or one because of the other, or neither because both? Does yourself rejoice or mourn? Does it rage, assuage, comfort, all or none? Does my ‘I’ deal with the world, do ‘I’ not? All I know is what I have learned, and all I have learned is who I am. When I account for what it is for myself to be, I use inherited currency. And here I am—asked to be, and to be as if not.

It is tempting to take a concept one has learned to be the concept; to take a present form as the form itself. The concept becomes normative, the centre from which all reflection—critical or affirming—must depart. I have learned this love, and now love is this—the concept is contained; and if it is not this, then it is not love. There are thus two options—be this, or be other; within or without. And if this contained concept is a concept which articulates myself, then myself is so contained as well.

But—what about the other that is this, and so the other that shows how ‘this’ is not just this? What about the love which is not what I have learned but which is love; not that my love is not love, but that my love is not all love, or necessarily what love is; a love which is not only mine? What, indeed, of the fishing which does not smell just of fish, but of death, disease, blood, and myrrh as well? What of the civic pride evinced in sack-cloth? What of those properties which are not property, but properly show the other that is me as if I were not just this like this?

That’s enough questions. The challenge Paul gives is to seek the edges of what we selves are, and with this edge displace the center. He asks what the other is inside identity, not apart from, but edging within, shifting the ground. There are other ways to be what I am without ceasing to be the ‘I’ that I am. Love is more, and less, and different, and same. And I as beloved can be enfolded in it all. I can learn the other that I am, the other way of being this, of doing this—to be, and to be as if not.

Is there a guide to learning? Skipping back to the verse I skipped, Paul says “yet those who marry will experience distress in this life, and I would spare you that.” He wants us to be ourselves as others, then, so that we might avoid unnecessary distress in the time that remains.

Now, glossing Paul’s belief that marriage is distress, there is something here. I’m guessing that many of us here have felt distress at some point. For a number of us, this will have been externally imposed—it will have been visited upon us by others. But I’d bet that for at least a few, distress has followed from how we take ourselves to be. We have learned concepts of ourselves which do not fit. I have learned that myself is this, for example, but this is not good enough; myself is this, but I am supposed to be otherwise; myself is this, but others think I shouldn’t be. And in all this, distress.

Not all distress should be avoided, of course; but in Christ, it should be possible to be oneself without being distressed by what one is. It should be possible to be oneself at peace. And I think Paul gives us a path to inhabit this peace: not to try and be other than myself, but to be other as myself. By listening to the edges of who I am, as I inhabit the place I find myself to be, I can learn that there is more to being this than I have learned. I can be a Ninevite in sackcloth, and a fisher away from the sea. I can ‘realize’ what I ‘believe’ of love, and I can learn more. This is not to abandon myself, but to learn that ‘this’ is not all that is; not other than myself, but other as myself.

It is so easy to be constrained by a form, an idea, a concept—concepts which were never taught, but have been learnt anyway. It is hard to see these concepts, because they are what we see with; hard to think about them, because they are what we think with. They work behind the eyes, patterning vision, thought, and action. This constraint can bring distress, binding us to destructive options. And what Paul gives us is an angle, through Christ, to feel out the edges of those forms and reorient the centre. This can entail so many different things. At all extremes, however, what is sought is not a change in terms of progress, nor of movement from A to B. Rather, we seek an understanding of what it is to be and to be as if not; an awareness of the folded possibilities inside what I have so far learnt to be; a dwelling in which I learn to feel the contours of the self, then follow paths hitherto hidden to sense. Not other than myself, but other as myself; in some ways a less dramatic shift, but possibly more profound, as we refold not just what we are, but it means for us to be.

In case all this is too isolationist, abstract, introspective, I must say that all this is a matter of community and Christ. In terms of community: we learn the forms which form us in community, and at root these forms are never simply one. Each of ourselves is really many selves; the self I am is a tapestry of interwoven lives and lessons—for better and for worse, but never for finality; my self is not a zero point of appropriating consciousness. All I know is what I have learned, and all I have learned is part of who I am. And if I am formed as community by community, then it is in community that I must learn both to be and be as if I am not. It is in others that I must find the edge of form which shows how to be myself as other. I must find this edge in a word I have not heard before, a kindness or a cruelty I have not envisioned, or a way of caring that opens me to new cares.

In terms of Jesus Christ; here is one who is all I am and all that I am not, human and divine, and so one through whom I can be human as if I am not Man; human as if humanity was not a project of evolutionary purification, or cultural stratification, or self-realization through the appropriation of wealth, knowledge, and sanctity. Through Jesus Christ, I can be human without being what colonial or colonized humanity has been, for in Christ humanity is not a zero-sum game. To be, and to be as if not, in the same prayerful breath.

We can read our lessons today as calling us to leave things behind. The Ninevites abandon their evil ways, the disciples drop their nets. This is, of course, a thing we must sometimes do; there are things which should not be, some ways that we should not be, some things Christ calls us from. But this is not all. For what we leave behind is what we have learned to see and be, and what we have learned is not all there is. When we learn a limited concept, we must not treat these limits as normative for that concept. There are possibilities within what it is to be a Ninevite, a fisher, a Christian, a self, which have still to be lived into. Christ does not just call us away from where we are, but also to the edges, that we might know the same place a little differently; not away from ourselves, but to the edges of self, that we might be the same selves a little differently. The forms of this world are passing away, but this does not mean the world is going to be destroyed: it means these forms are passing and folding into one another, unfolding new possibility, which is nonetheless the same ‘this’ that it has ever been. And so we are called to be, and to be as if we are not; not to be other than, but other as ourselves.

This has been a flurry of words. In one sense, they are unnecessary. There is a simpler way of expressing Paul—and there is actually nothing more complicated here than realizing there are other ways to love than the ways we have learned. This is a simple thing to say. But it is hard to think, because the forms shapes the thought: the problem is framed in the forms which cause the problem. And so it is important to ask the strange question at length, what is myself—and how could I be what I am as if I were not? How can I do this through God, and begin to discern the other that is myself, graciously interwoven with both Christ and neighbor?

The life of the disciples probably offers some concrete pointers here; those fishers who remain fishers as if they were not. And I think the concrete questions of justice, sin, and grace are bound up in these conceptual questions of communal self. But the concrete details are for times which cannot be contained in this sermon; they’re for the inescapable and unrepeatable moments of life, as communion shapes community through an unsettling indwelling. The words are so simple, and the thought so hard: to be all I am as other than I am, without disintegrating or departing; to breathe the otherness of what I have learned as self-same. I think there is a mystery here. I find it hard to express. I believe it comes alive in love and friendship, but also that it needs to be seen as mystery before it can be seen to live. But be that as it may, ourselves are formed by the forms of the world, and these forms pass away as we still inhabit the selves we are. And so for God alone our souls in silence wait—the God who is in others as they are not God; the silence in the noise that is not noise; ourselves as all we are, while we lean to be other as ourselves.



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