July 27, 2009

Listening for Wisdom

I have the privilege this week of being at the Chautauqua Institution in western New York for a week with other seminary presidents, a group of new clergy, and world-renowned lecturers, authors, and artists. (I would encourage you to read some of the history of this sacred place, which is given to thoughtful listening to a variety of voices in order to gain wisdom.) The focus of this week is on Abrahamic religions, i.e., Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. There are representatives of these faiths, albeit predominantly Christian, who are striving to listen to one another's understanding of faith and practice. Thus, there are inevitable tensions and growing edges for us all as we consider how to deal with the very real challenge of religious pluralism in America. The interfaith service last evening demonstrated the respectful hearing of discrete texts drawn from these traditions, yet clearly the hearing of the words of the Koran and the call of the muezzin was more difficult for those assembled.
The lecturer of the morning was Elie Wiesel, holocaust survivor, renowned professor, author, Nobel laureate for peace (among many other honors), and witness to the pain of all whose human rights are constrained by prejudice and political hegemony. I went early in order to get a seat up front. I wanted to see his face and seek to understand the depth from which he speaks. The amphitheatre holds 7000 persons, and seats were at a premium. Indeed, there were several hundred who stood within hearing distance of his reflection on "What makes a person moral?" A diminutive man nearing 80, he spoke with passion about our need to focus on protecting the rights of those flattened by law that is often immoral in application. Ardent about the high-risk stakes in Iran, Israel, and Darfur, he encouraged prophetic speech rather than a blind eye (like most nations toward the Third Reich).  While profuse in his gratitude toward America--he had been liberated from Buchenwald concentration camp by American troops--he warned against two particularly American clich├ęs: "relax," and "just move on."  We must not relax, he contended, when there is so much work to be done in the world, so much yet to learn. The notion that we can "just move on" and erase memory of travesty is glib and, more serious, dishonors those whom we must sustain in memory and hope.
Professor Wiesel spent a good bit of time reflecting on the story of Job, one who wrestles with God as he struggles to assert that "he is a moral person, i.e., that he is good."  The problem with this, according to Wiesel, is that we can never justify ourselves before God, for God is the arbiter of morality. It is the role of God and, secondarily, others to assert our "goodness"; when we adjudicate this for ourselves, we are prone to misunderstand the reality of our lives. Mature morality, thus, is to listen for the wisdom of God and thereby correct faulty self-assessment. Surely we can interrogate the ways of God, he affirmed, yet there is a sovereignty too mysterious for our understanding to encompass. So, we must listen.
Molly T. Marshall, Ph.D.

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