Princeton University Religious Life

Sermon by Prof. John Fleming

Prof. John Fleming
Princeton University Chapel
February 12, 2012

Though teaching and preaching appear in the Bible as cognate offices, I have good reason to understand the considerable difference between them, and therefore to fear a charge of presumption in mounting the stairs to one of the world’s more imposing pulpits. I am a layman unordained. I have never studied in a seminary, and I have read little theology written in the last five hundred years. But I am a Christian, however feeble, and this chapel congregation is one of the Christian communities of which I am a member—so I’ll give it a try. I was a professor of literature, so I can cheat as much as possible by dealing largely with the conspicuously literary aspect of our faith, by which I mean of course the Bible.

Most people today lack the familiarity with the Bible nearly universal in previous generations. Whether this is a fact of much ethical significance is perhaps debatable, but it is a huge cultural deficit. If you know nothing about the Bible you will miss the significance of the first line of Moby Dick, and you will have no idea why the modern sculpture on the green in front of Prospect House, entitled “Moses”, looks like a pair of football goal-posts. There is no way of achieving biblical literacy overnight, but there are certain useful shortcuts.

I used to tell students, jokingly, that if they had time to read only one chapter of the New Testament it should be the nineteenth chapter of Matthew. This all-star chapter has many astonishing things—among them teachings about divorce, the three categories of eunuchs, Jesus and the little children, the camel and the needle’s eye—and it gives a definite answer to the central question of our existence: “What must I do to be saved?”

A rich young man comes up to Jesus and asks that very question. Jesus replies: “Keep the commandments”—meaning the Ten Commandments—and starts listing them. Unperturbed, the rich man answers confidently—no problem, he’s never broken a single one. Already the literary genre has become surrealism. I don’t now about you, but I have always rejoiced in the commandment “Thou shalt make no graven image,” because, by God, I never have made a graven image.   “Well, there is one more thing,” says Jesus. “Go liquidate all your property, and give the money to poor people.” The young man went away sorrowful, for he had much possessions. So the good news is that we know what we must do to be saved. The bad news is that nobody but Anthony of the Desert and Mother Theresa could possibly do it.

Whenever Jesus simplifies things for us, we know we are in for it. In another place he boils the whole Bible, beginning with the Ten Commandments, down to two “simple” obligations: we must love God, and we must love our neighbors.    Jesus said to them “Thou shalt love the Lord with all thy heart, and all thy soul, and all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment, and the second is like it: Love your neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” Matthew 22:37

Jesus says all this, as he so often did, as though it were a rather simple thing to do, a matter of following directions. But there are actually very few activities that we perform with all of our volitional capacities. There are certainly times, usually in extremis or even desperation, when we perhaps can love God with our whole heart. Rarer are the moments of genuine exaltation in which we love God with all our soul. But I daresay rarest of all is the achievement of genuine mental love, when we love God with all our mind.

Fortunately, Christianity is not a mere intellectual system, or rather not even such a system. In fact many of the greatest Christians, including among them some of the most learned, have been what one would have to call anti-intellectuals. I have spent much of my career studying the cultural artifacts of the great evangelical revival that swept over Europe in the thirteenth century begun by Saint Francis of Assisi, who called himself an idiota (an unlearned person) and dispraised book-learning.  The Fathers of the Church had a stock phrase they used to describe the original disciples: piscatores, non philosophi. Christ had chosen fishermen, not philosophers, to be the proclaimers of his good news. The brilliant Saint Augustine reduced the issue to a terrifying empirical syllogism. He had known good men who knew nothing of the liberal arts. He had known masters of the arts who were not good men. The conclusion was to him obvious.

A superior intelligence, let alone erudition, can be no requirement for sanctification or salvation, and they very often, indeed, may be detriments. But there are still a few places—and surely an academic community such as this one must be one of them—where it is not mere navel-gazing to ponder what it might mean to love God with our whole mind. The gospel will always be good news, but that does not mean that there is no such thing as bad news. There is a very great deal of bad news, and a good deal of it today is connected in one way or another with religion.

The date on the cornerstone of this magnificent chapel is 1925. That is not quite within my own lifetime, but it is within the lifetimes of many living persons. It would seem inconceivable to the builders of this awesome temple that within the span of a single lifetime it would move from being the central architectural statement of an institutional commitment to Christian education to a kind of white elephant into which most Princeton students put foot thrice in their careers—once in their first week, twice in the last, and most faculty never at all. Not even in my most rebellious moments of youthful rejection of the sterilities and hypocrisies of organized Christianity did I dream that in my lifetime the adjectives “Christian” and “evangelical” would regularly appear in the national press to suggest negative qualities of mean-spiritedness, ignorance, and bigotry. Even less, perhaps, could I imagine there might be merit in the charges. Such phenomena, emblems of an astonishing pace of social change, are not adequately addressed by a spiritual sigh or an ecclesiastical “Tsk, tsk!” They require of Christians some serious, uncomfortable thought

Whatever else the phrase “love God with all your mind” might mean it has to mean using the mind to do what the mind does best, which is thinking. We do not come into the world endowed with faith. We do come into it endowed with reason. In the great philosophical tradition of Christianity reason has never been the enemy of faith. Reason has been the pathway to faith. The implicit idea that we would do honor either to ourselves or to our Creator by being fearful of our reason, or intentionally constraining its operations is, if you think about it for a moment, a very strange idea.

One thing we can all try to think a little harder about that we often do, since it is so fundamental to our faith, is the Bible. It is not simply that every Christian should “know” the Bible; we should think about the Bible. We cannot all become Hebrew or Greek scholars, or biblical archaeologists, but we can think about what we read or hear read in our weekly services.  Our medieval exegetes were very encouraging about this. Augustine, most subtle of exegetes, insisted that the Bible never teaches anything in a difficult or covert manner that it does not elsewhere teach simply and transparently: namely the two laws of charity, Love God, love your neighbor. Gregory the Great thinks of the Scriptures as a water course: it is a mighty river in which the great elephant can swim; it is a gentle stream in which the lamb may safely wade. Thomas Aquinas speaks of your capacity to enjoy the grace of the Scriptures in terms of buckets: it doesn’t matter what size bucket you have; just make sure you bucket is full.

I used the phrase “read the Bible or hear it read” for a purpose.  That is the way Jesus himself came by his Bible—hearing it read in community—and the way that those who wrote our own Christian scriptures had learned theirs. Students are often surprised to learn that for most of the centuries of the church's history Bibles, as we think of Bibles, complete one-volume collections of all its books, were very rare. St. Augustine, for example, probably had never seen one. Most people’s biblical experience was aural—they heard the biblical text read in church. They had to listen closely. We ought to do likewise—listen carefully, and if not with our whole minds at least with as much of them as possible, and with good deal more attention than our diffuse and multi-tasking thought generally devotes to the background babble of our daily lives.

What might it mean to think hard about what we have just heard within the last twenty minutes? Every person who thinks about it is likely to see it, from one angle, in a unique perspective. That is where the elephant and the lamb come in. But unless we are prepared to regard the Bible as a huge Rorschach test—a vast anthology of inkblots rescuable from utter insignificance only by our own initiative of imposing upon them the fugitive associations of our own psyches—we need to read it at least as thoughtfully as we would any other demanding book, paying some attention to such things as the circumstances of it composition, the possible or probable intentions of its author, and quite possibly, to its author’s unstated cultural suppositions. In Mark’s breathless gospel Jesus heals a man of leprosy in three words, then spends thirty telling him, elaborately, that he should under no circumstances tell anybody about it. Why does Mark seem to think Jesus’s messianic powers should remain secret? Nobody else does, least of all the healed man, who shows his gratitude for a stupendous miracle by immediately violating the solemn charge laid upon by the miracle-worker.

The answer, which for lack of time I can give you only briefly, is that Mark wants you to figure out for yourself who Jesus is, by thinking. If you are a Bible-hearer, this leprosy miracle is déjà vu all over again. We have heard all this before, and with the most convenient help of our liturgical lectionary—now widely shared by Catholics and Protestants throughout the world—we know where we have heard it, namely in the Second Book of Kings in the story of the healing of the Syrian general Naaman at the hands of the prophet Elisha.

The simple fact is that this passage in Mark becomes fully comprehensible only by reference to something that is nowhere in it yet everywhere behind it—by reference, that is, to ancient Jewish beliefs about the prophet Elijah. Yes, Elijah, who just for increased difficulty is called in our Christian Scriptures by his Greek name, Elias. For who was Elisha? The successor of Elijah/Elias, of course, to whom the Prophet of Fire dropped his mantel even as a chariot was carrying him off to Heaven. And who will be his next and definitive successor, after he returns? The Messiah, of course. That is why in the beautiful Jewish practice there ls a chair reserved for Elijah at circumcision ceremonies; that is why Elijah has his wine cup waiting at Passover Seders. That is why Jesus, when he stood transfigured on the Mount, stood between the two super-prophets, Moses on the one side, Elijah on the other. And that is why as they come down from the Mountain (This is Matthew 17:10, if you need a text), “the disciples asked him, saying, Why then say the scribes that Elias must first come’?”

A thoughtful examination of the extended story of the healing of Naaman is likely to lead you to some other truths about Jesus’s messianic power: that it is not to be sought in centers of political authority, that any attempt to set a money value upon it is a criminal sacrilege.

No more than any of its fellows is Mark’s gospel a philosophical manifesto sent into the timeless void free of contextual particularity. It is instead a collection of stories about Jesus prepared for some early Jewish followers of Jesus who are deeply immersed in Jewish scriptural text and practice. The particular story he tells—Jesus heals a man of a dread disease—is sufficiently sensational to fill a pretty large bucket all on its own. But the application of our minds can lead us to something larger yet. What I call the real story of the healing of the leper is the way Mark tells the story—in a fashion that for thoughtful minds both stakes its claim for the unique personhood of Jesus Christ and, at the same time, placed Jesus at the fulcrum of history, reaching backwards through all the L     aw and the Prophets to the first recorded promises of God to the human race, reaching forward to embrace us, and our own anxious thoughts for what is future yet. Mark has told the story so that we might silently concur with the healed leper that the goodness God has manifested in the world is so very good that not to talk about it would be absurd. Or at least to think about it with our whole minds.


Let me conclude with a beautiful prayer. Needless to say it is not of my authorship. It is a collect from the Anglican prayer book of 1662, and in my church it is assigned to the second Sunday of Advent, near the very start of the Christian year. The odd word collect derives from the old Latin, and it means the initial prayer of a congregation as it comes together for worship. The collect prepares us to hear read the Scripture passages appointed for that day. This particular collect prepares us for all such readings.

Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning; Grant that we may in such wise hear them read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience, and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace, and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life.

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