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During these last few months, I have had the chance to go back through my library and pick out titles to read. It is interesting which books stand out to me now, which ones seem to call out to be read during these days. One such work was a fascinating book by Carlo Rovelli called Reality is not What it Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravity.
The first time I tried to read this book, I became so frustrated at how ignorant I felt that I put it away. These days, I feel so ignorant that the bar was set quite high and I have actually enjoyed it!
Rovelli is a theoretical physicist, and he walks you through the history of physics and, later, quantum theory all the way from Anaximander in the 6th century Greek city of Miletus to Einstein to today’s work around Quantum Theory. The constant refrain of the book is its title: Reality is Not What it Seems.
I’ve thought a lot about this question of “what is reality” for a while now, especially in this election season. Don’t worry. This isn’t going to be a “political sermon.” It is a theological sermon that, if done even marginally well, might cause you to examine any grasping you have on your particular political party platform. After all, we are supposed to grow as Christians, and we don’t grow unless we are challenged.
Which brings me back to this question of reality. I have taken a few calls from folks in the parish who share such frustration that long-standing friends and family just don’t seem to share the same reality as they do. Folks are shocked when someone repeats something they have heard–or say they believe. Sometimes it feels like we are living in parallel and separate realities at times, doesn’t it?
It feels like we can’t even talk to each other, so in these days of physical distancing, now with the election there is this impulse to emotionally distance from people, and that is causing enormous pain. People feel entrenched in their beliefs, even in the face of facts. Anger swells, and we’re off to the races.
The psychological reason for this, of course, is cognitive dissonance, which describes the tension that exists when new information challenges the way you have believed and acted until a certain point. Humans being humans, we don’t like change, and we don’t like to be challenged. I think it’s ironic, perhaps, that the word human and humble have the same root, because humility persists in being so very difficult for humans to practice.
As a recent article described, in terms of cognitive dissonance, “The bottom line is that when there is a conflict between our attitudes and our behavior, we tend to change our attitudes to make them consistent with our behavior rather than change our behavior to make it consistent with our attitudes.” We will find a way to continue eating those cookies.
So, we find ourselves where we are today, with these camps totally entrenched in their patterns of behavior, no matter how many proofs or texts or recordings or whatever laid out for all to see. And that causes enormous frustration–and it also creates an environment for conspiracy theories to thrive, because people are not wired to pause and do research and discover whether or not something they have heard is true. It is an emotional reaction to grasp onto something that helps you rationalize your behavior patterns to this point and reaffirm yourself–even if you are just flat wrong.
So, you may be asking what this has to do with our practice of faith, given that today is when we observe our parish feast day, the Feast of the Holy Cross. This has EVERYTHING to do with our practice of faith.
Here’s the thing: the crucifixion is, I think, the ultimate embodiment or example of reality that calls us to change our attitude and behavior in this world. It is a reality that breaks through the cognitive dissonance by inviting us into a transformational experience of God’s grace. Or at least it invites us to…
Here’s how this works in our lives. Take today’s readings, especially from Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. We have this incredible image of the call to put on the mind of Christ, which means that we pattern our lives (model our behavior) on Christ’s own life, which was marked by a posture of self-emptying. If we want to know what it looks like to be a Christian in the world–in terms of our ethics and behavior–then we look to Jesus himself, who suffered and died to redeem the world. That is the defining truth of our reality.
But, we live in a culture that epitomizes self-aggrandizement and self-promotion, a celebrity culture where greed and ambition and arrogance are not only accepted but praised. Where the image of “a strong man” is held up as the goal, where power and control are set in front of us as key values that we all should emulate. Where a noble understanding of “freedom” and “rights” is warped to support just plain old arrogance.
And against this, St. Paul and the entire Gospel tradition within Christianity hold up this posture of self-emptying, of laying down one’s life for one’s friends, of loving one’s enemies. Of placing the care and concern for the poor, the immigrant, the vulnerable at the heart of our focus of compassion. The entire Christian tradition speaks about this posture of emptying oneself, because we look to Jesus to understand what our reality is.
So, what do we do with this tension, this cognitive dissonance? Here is where the rationalization comes in. On one hand, we compartmentalize our faith and tell ourselves that “my faith is a private thing,” although this flies in the face of the entire truth that Jesus taught about loving your neighbor and living a righteous life in the world. We shop around until we hear a message that affirms our already-grasped notions of how we should live in the world.
When it pinches too much, we say that preachers and teachers and others are not being appropriate, that they are meddling. And preachers and clergy folks themselves, let’s be honest, so easily slide into this consumer, greedy posture. How many clergy need a private jet or multi-million dollar mansions? Or are just blatantly arrogant and think ministry is about power and political influence? Let’s be honest about this. When you live in a culture that encourages power and self-promotion and greed, how wonderful to be a clergy person who reinforces that for a population of people craving to hear it!
We all feel this tension right now, don’t we? This cognitive dissonance in our lives between what we know the Gospel says and the way so much of the culture is encouraging us to live. And the truth is that this tension has marked the Christian tradition from the outset, hence why the first monasteries were developed in the desert away from the pressure of the cities. This tension was at the heart of the abuse of the indulgence system that sparked much of the Reformation. Hence why the contemplative tradition always calls us back to this deeper practice of prayer that transforms our hearts and shifts us into another frame of reality.
Being a Christian is hard work, my friends. I would say being an authentic practitioner of any faith is hard work, because the wisdom of the world’s faith traditions always calls us toward compassion and an awareness of our interdependence.
As Christians, we are always being challenged by the image of the crucifixion that says “reality is not what it seems,” that our TRUE reality is one of emptying, not grasping. Compassion, not arrogance. Dying to self, not greed. This is why I picked this day for our parish feast, when I realized we didn’t have one, because the Feast of the Holy Cross challenges us so much to see the truth in what we saw we really believe.
And how much we need to be encouraged right now! So, I say, do not lose heart when you feel this tension in these coming weeks. Recognize the anger that rises in you, but don’t yield to it. Pay attention to your practice of prayer and ground yourself there. When someone tells you something that you can’t believe, honestly pause. Stop talking, and perhaps say to them, “I’m going to need time to read and learn more about that and pray about how to respond to it.” And turn off the news and stop constantly returning to the echo-chamber of your social media.
Jesus is always inviting us to share in the reality of compassion and justice that he embodied. The Spirit is always at work in our lives. In these coming weeks, let us pause and listen for it.
The Rev. Dr. Stuart Higginbotham
a sermon for the Feast of the Holy Cross
September 13, 2020