Faith in Wonder & Mystery

Mary Magdala Community

“Faith in Wonder & Mystery”(c)

Feast of Ascension and Mother’s Day —  May 12 , 2024

Rev. Jim Ryan, M.Div., Ph.D.  —

Pastor,  Mary Magdala Community,

Serene Jones is President of Union Theological Seminary (UTS) in New York City.  A scholar in her own right, she has held this leadership role for 16 years, the first woman in this position in the 182 year history of UTS.  Union is, along with being historic, a prestigious and influential school of theology not only on the east coast but also throughout the US, as well, one may say with assurance, around the globe.  Union is the school that Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Paul Tillich sought haven at as each one decided what to do about the tragic consequences of Nazi ascendancy in their native Germany.  Tillich stayed and contributed greatly to the advance of theological thought and influence during the latter half of the 20th century.  Bonhoeffer returned to the homeland.  For his courageous conviction that faith is a free exercise of the disciple of Jesus in church and in the world he was martyred within weeks of the end of WWII.

Reinhold Niebuhr was a faculty member at Union.  From the 1940s to the 1970s he was among the most well-known and accoladed public intellectuals in this country.  He guided the application of theological ethics to public policy.  His “realpolitik” ethical view, however, was abandoned by many who saw the Vietnam War as a capitalist play for market domination and the Cold War as propped up by concretized notions as truth being divisible.  In short, a la Niebuhr, the ethical demand of the good upon the individual may be disregarded for the sake of society’s goods (see “Moral Man, Immoral Society”).

Beverly Wildung Harrison, also a Union faculty member, is regarded by many as the “Mother” of Christian Feminist Ethics.  Her tenure covered the second half of the last century (1952-99).  She was the first woman president of the North American Society of Christian Ethics.  In the Fall of 1973, I participated in Harrison’s seminar on John Rawls’ Theory of Justice.  It was a revelation.  She conducted the seminar as one hopes such gatherings would be led, with conversations, dialogues, challenges and intellectual resolution.  I experienced first-hand the skill and expertise she shared with her students flowing in and out of the roles of leader and peer.  I continue to value the intellectual integrity and soundness of the Rawlsian “original position” thanks to that seminar and Beverly’s leadership of it.

I mention all this in the hope that you will see that Serene Jones leads an institution that is notably built upon Christian Ethics as an honorable, even courageous, pursuit in one’s life – academically, professionally, and personally.  Curiously, here is where this tale of Serene takes a turn.  The details are not completely clear, but I believe I have the trajectory of what happened in clear enough focus.

In preparation for the celebration of Easter, let’s say a recent one as I do not have the precise year, a New York Times reporter thought it relevant to interview President Jones to inquire about her views on Resurrection and New Life.  I did not read the article itself.  What I did was view the recording that Serene made in the aftermath of her remarks in the article.  From what she said on the video I can only gather that her remarks received considerable pushback.  After I viewed the recording, I’m certain that she handily represented UTS with its history and practice of the study and application of Ethics.  She spoke in the spirit of the long history of faculty members and their exploration into Ethics.  I’m not sure she spoke as convincingly of Easter’s resurrection gift of New Life.

Here’s what I interpret her as saying.  Jones presented that the attitude of purpose with which we live life can be seen as a theological posture.  This purpose, when applied to daily life, recognizes life’s boundaries within which we carry on our living.  She says with life we are certain of two things, namely that we are born and that we die.  On this continuum we choose to be purposeful.  We act, for good or ill, within these boundaries which verifies the ethical achievements or failures of such actions.  Well, OK for a path to achieve growth in ethical choice.  But, how is this in any way a contribution to the Resurrected life which is the neverending renewal of that life whose boundaries are birthing and dying?

We celebrate today the Feast of Ascension.  On the basis of the stories of faith which we have received and in which we believe, Jesus’ life did not end at death.  He experienced an extension of that life through the event of the Resurrection and lasting until his Ascension.  What are we to make of this extension?  I say this is the time of wonder and mystery!

This is the time, as Jesus directs, for us to be his witnesses to all the world (Acts 1:8, Mark 16:15)).  This is the time of seeing “his presence” in the good we do (Mark 16:20).  This is the time of filling the universe, of acknowledging the Cosmic Christ.  While ethics may be about standards, boundaries, and exercises in the trust that we will make correct decisions, it does not complete the experience of the One who fills the earth.  On this Feast of Ascension ethics gives way to wonder and mystery.

I believe there can be no doubt that the disciples experienced Jesus’ departure from them.  It is a testament, a witness of the faith which has been handed down; one which we celebrate today.  I am persuaded that the alternative to this experience, namely that this group had disposed of Jesus’ body and then concocted a tale of watching him rise above the clouds, is a fabrication.  Perhaps you share with me the same skepticism that such a number of human beings can keep the same secret without adjustment to the story over time.

This is the time of wonder and mystery.  Life is more than birthing and dying.  Life extends beyond physical death.  If this be not the case then, yes, any person can come up with an ethical system by which one lives, and, yes, with purpose.  This time of wonder and mystery, this time of Jesus’ life beyond Resurrection informs all our life of faith.  These days, though, as we shed the stories of feet dangling from clouds, deconstruct the dependency upon anthropomorphizing this time of wonder, we find ourselves embracing the Cosmic Christ.  This is the Word by which the universe is made (Neill de Grasse Tyson notwithstanding), that universe which powerful telescopes and cameras in space make increasingly real to us day by day.  Lastly, although also initially, our full circle moment of wonder and mystery compels us to awe, to praise the Creator, to acknowledge, as Teilhard de Chardin does, that we are spiritual beings having a human experience.

Prayer (JR)

With joy and wonder we gather to witness the Word’s message to the cosmos,

Being all in all.  The Teacher commissions us to go out to all the world

to speak love, justice, and peace.

Come, Holy Spirit! Fill us with that daily commitment to be disciples of Jesus

and servants to others, now and forever. 


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