Professor of Theological and Social Ethics
Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary
Church Divinity School of the Pacific
Well-schooled in Religions’ Wisdom: The healing and liberating arts of truth-telling grounded in hope
You 36 graduates are rich in moral courage, spiritual strength, probing intellects, creativity, and grit. I am thrilled that you are commencing now in the spring of 2021 to use these gifts and your GTU education in today’s world. For your journey, I, as an elder to you, offer you a gift. It is to confess my terror, tender my hope which far outshines the terror, and note two kernels of possible wisdom – in that order. As I begin, I implore you, do not take the tenor of my terror as the tone of my words as a whole. Stay with me beyond the first minute; we will not end on its note.
So here goes: As declared by a widely respected climate expert from South Africa, “The next few years are probably the most important in history.” Take it in: “The next few years are probably the most important in history.” In these few years, human decisions will determine whether we continue our mad dash into the most widespread form of racial injustice and economic injustice the world has known – catastrophic climate collapse in which people of color, indigenous people, and impoverished people the world over are far more devastated by the violent rage of climate induced drought, disease, famine, storm, and illness — or whether instead we reverse course, making radical and rapid shifts in how we live as households, communities, and nations. Life for each one of you will be shaped by this reality. For millions, it will mean life or death.
Something new is asked of humankind – to forge economies, cultures, and bodies politic fiercely committed to ecological wisdom wed inseparably to racial and economic equity. All fields of human inquiry are called now to this “great work.” None is more vital than well-formed religious wisdom finely honed in the subversive arts of truth-telling grounded in hope.
You, dear GTU graduates of 2021, have earned your degrees in these healing and liberating arts; you are schooled in truth-telling for the sake of the world. By Truth-telling I mean seeing more clearly and claiming three forms of truth:
- The first is the truth of “what is” – what is going in any situation if you dig beneath the surface. In particular, I mean unmasking systemic evils that parade as good. Among them are exploitative economies masquerading as the good life, and white supremacy including its manifestation as climate racism.
- BUT telling the truth regarding “what is” will kill your spirit unless you also pursue and proclaim a second and third form of truth. The second is “what could be and IS in the making” – that is, far more compassionate, equitable, joy-filled, and life-giving ways of constructing life together. You 36 have cast your lots – in one way or another — with that liberative movement of movements. It is your birthright to live in ways that serve life in its fullness for all, not death and destruction. Cry this truth from the rooftops, employing your GTU-honed skills in words and theory embodied as practice.
- The final in this triad of truth-forms is a special purview of religious wisdoms. It is this: the sacred grounding of all that is, the generative transforming source of the cosmos, is at play in the world drawing this wayward species from the way things are into the way things could be.
Now, for your ongoing journey of courageous truth-telling in tri-form, I share with you some food for the road – two practices that sustain me.
- One is the wild and risky embrace of paradox — more specifically a trio of paradoxes:
- The paradox of beauty and brutality. Do not flee from acknowledging the brutalities of life infected by systemic evil such as racism and exploitation. We cannot “unmask, disentangle, and debunk” them (in the words of Katie Canon) without facing them. But AT THE SAME TIME relish the breath-taking beauty of life – sensual beauty, spiritual beauty. Savor moments of beauty and joy. Drink them up, let them caress you, heal you: the enchanting touch of breeze on skin, the glory of birdsong, the face of a beloved, the dazzling delight of laughter… you know these beauties and infinitely more – relish them. Be a mystic when it comes to knowing sacred beauty.
- Secondly: The paradox of profound lament and joy co-existing. I finally have learned that my searing grief at life’s brutalities need not destroy my joy, and relishing joy does not demand repressing my lament.
- And finally: The paradox of hope and despair. Pretending that I am without despair — as I did pretend for some years — ate away at my guts. So, I learned to name it. Yes, I do feel despair. Yet, this I know: even while knowing despair, my hope is unceasing and endures beyond the despair. Plumb the depths of your religious tradition for wellsprings of undying hope. You 36 are equipped for that. Do not fear or deny despair; rather, meet it with the hope born in part of your formation here at the GTU.
Yes, the embrace of paradox is one sustaining practice. The other is this: Remember who you are. The hierarchical dictates of the academy and the colonizing clench of capitalist society spin lies about who you are. Do not believe those lies. They clamor to convince you that you are NOT worthy; you do not belong; and you are alone. These are falsehoods. You are beloved and infinitely worthy; you are born to be a lover in communion with self, others, the Holy, and all of creation; and you are not alone. No — you are part of life’s sacred communion. Honor your precious self as beloved, belonging, and woven into Earth’s web of life.
No graduating class has gone forth at such a time as this. Never before has the world so needed religion to use its gifts for the sake of the world. For this testing point in human history, you have been well-schooled here at the GTU in the liberative arts of truth-telling. Practice them. What each of you does, how you walk at this turning time in the Earth story matters, and it matters much.