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August 8, 2010 | 8:00 a.m.

Hokum, Humility, and Healing

John H. Boyle
Parish Associate, Fourth Presbyterian Church

Psalm 103:6–14
2 Kings 5:1–14
Romans 3:21–26

That man is in bondage to his own false gods— his own standards of self-justification— which assume demonic power over his life, is a picture of the human situation strongly supported by the insights of psychotherapy. . . . Against the background of sin’s conditions of worth, God’s love operates as a plumb line that judges and exposes the uselessness of man’s efforts to justify himself.

Don S. Browning
Atonement and Psychotherapy

When I came to Fourth Church in 1976 to be the founding director of our Counseling Center and to serve as a member of the pastoral staff, the pastor at the time was Dr. Elam Davies. A graduate of Cambridge University with a degree in philosophy, Dr. Davies was an eloquent preacher whose sermons reflected intellectual integrity, theological insight, and emotional sensibility, all of which, fortunately for us, have been preserved in the preaching of our current pastor, John Buchanan.

One day, upon returning to the church from a nearby restaurant where we had had lunch with some of our clergy colleagues, Dr. Davies and I fell in step with each other and chatted as we walked together. During a lull in our conversation, I suddenly blurted out, “Elam, have you ever wondered whether all that we are involved in here at Fourth Church, all this business about faith and God and what we say we believe, all we do in worship services and during the sacraments, and all we talk about when we speak about the Bible and engage in theological discussions, whether all this is really so much hokum, so much bunk?” I have an idea it may be a question that rattles around in the minds of some people who attend worship services and are faithful church members.

We both stopped dead in our tracks. It was clear that my question, brazen as it was, startled him. It was also clear that I had startled myself in having the nerve to ask it, and I immediately wondered if I was in trouble, as he looked at me intently for several seconds. I was somewhat relieved when a wide grin on his face broke that moment of intense scrutiny and he replied, “But John, what’s the alternative?”

Of course there are arguably all kinds of alternatives. But his question in response to mine reflected his empathic acceptance of me and my presumptuousness, as well as an invitation to further conversation, which indeed we had later. Rather than chide me for even thinking such a thing, much less articulating it, he welcomed both it and me into dialogue. Besides that, he was aware that my question may have arisen in part out of whatever struggle I was having at the time in the wake of the recent death of my wife.

During our subsequent conversations, we concluded that whatever perceived hokum might be present in religious observances and belief systems, it did not hide or negate the fundamental issue at the heart of it all, namely who or what is God and who or what are we as human beings. For the essential issue that all religions seek to address has to do with the nature of God and the relationship that exists between God and the whole creation, especially human beings. The issue is not so much whether there is God, but what is God’s nature and what is the nature of the god or gods around which we ultimately organize our lives and toward which we direct our energies and our emotional passions. In this sense, there is no such thing as an atheist. Even the so-called atheist has a god, not necessarily supernatural in nature and not necessarily construed theologically or philosophically or metaphysically but functionally, around which that person’s life has been organized. The faith instinct, to use the title of Nicholas Wade’s new book, is alive and well even among those who do not believe God is. The issue is not whether one has faith, but in what or whom one has ultimately put one’s trust.

If God is someone we fabricate, that we create, then as creator, we are God, we are the originator. On the other hand, as ones who are not self-created but are the products of creation, then to act as if we were God is to distort reality. Part of the purpose of our religious faith and of worship is to remind us of who we are and of who we are not and to give voice to our awareness of the God who is higher and larger and greater in love and grace than all of the pantheon of gods that absorb our attention in life, including the idol of ourselves.

The harmful hokum in religious faith has less to do with believing this, that, or the other, but with what any given belief prompts us to do and how it impacts the manner in which we order our lives. The hokum has to do with whether we think we know all there is to know about God and life and ourselves and other people and whether we count on the standards set by ourselves and society to justify our existence and deem us worthy of acceptance by God, ourselves, and others. For when we do this, hokum becomes hocus-pocus, or magic, and there is a very thin line between magic and mature religious and spiritual understanding.

In other words, it is the hokum of hubris that is to be avoided when it comes to religious faith and practice. It is inordinate pride that is the ultimate hokum that seduces us into thinking that we are justified as to our worth and value as human beings because we deserve to be rewarded with acceptance by virtue of our having accumulated the trappings of success and acquired the ornaments of celebrity status.

In his book The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, Peter Beinart identifies three main forms that hubris has taken throughout the history of our country: the hubris of reason, the hubris of toughness, and the hubris of dominance. To a greater or lesser degree these forms of hubris were on display in the case of Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, as recorded in the fifth chapter of 2 Kings.

You would think that a person in trouble, in dire straits by dint of circumstance, and afflicted with a potentially life-threatening disease, would not stand on ceremony or flaunt his pomp and circumstance or his wealth and status in the face of someone willing and able to provide needed help. Not so Naaman. The old adage about beggars not being choosers might not always apply, but sooner or later we all become beggars, like it or not, even if we don’t choose to acknowledge it. Remember how Maria, the novitiate nun in the movie The Sound of Music and dubbed a problem by the Mother Superior, frequently cried “Help!” when faced with some perplexing dilemma? Sooner or later we all cry “Help!” But pride may keep us from it. In Naaman’s case, it almost did.

Centuries ago the nation of Aram occupied a geographical region we know as Syria today. Naaman was the David Petraeus of his time, commander of the armies of the king of Aram. Naaman was also a leper. At least he suffered from some disorder similar to leprosy, which may have been potentially fatal. In any event, Naaman wanted to be rid of it. When his army conquered Israel, a captive Israeli woman, now a servant of Naaman’s wife, indicated that she knew of someone in Samaria, a prophet, who could effect a cure. Armed with a letter of reference from the king of Aram, surrounded by an entourage of chariots and horses, and carrying with him a lot of cash and clothing, Naaman goes to the king of defeated Israel, assuming that as king he could effect the cure.

In turn, the king of Israel suspects that the leader of the Aram nation wants to pick a fight with him and becomes upset. As an aside, it is interesting to note that centuries later, in both individual and international relationships, touchiness and fear, together with the misperception of the motives of others, can lead people to get upset, sometimes enough to start killing one another.

In any event, the prophet Elisha somehow hears about this and tells the king of Israel to send Naaman to him. Even though Naaman thinks he may be getting the run around, he nevertheless pulls up in front of Elisha’s house with a flourish, chariot wheels whirling, horses snorting, and dust flying. But Naaman becomes incensed when Elisha, for whatever reason, chooses not to come out and meet Naaman and cure him in a public display, but sends a messenger to instruct Naaman to wash himself seven times in the Jordan River, a mud hole in comparison to some more pristine and prestigious rivers in the area. It was a double affront to Naaman, clothed in the adornments of wealth and status and all dolled up with the accouterments of prestige and power. In the face of such an insult, he might well have shouted out, “Hey you, prophet, how dare you! Who do you think you are? Do you know who I am?” Sensing that their leader was in danger of blowing it by allowing his sense of self-importance to keep him from being cured, Naaman’s servants prevailed upon him to do what Elisha told him to do. Fortunately, Naaman relented, laid aside his vestments of pride, and literally got down and dirty in the muddy waters of the Jordan and was cured.

It was a close call for Naaman. He almost missed receiving the blessing, the cure. The blessing we want, the cure we need, is not about leprosy. It’s about brokenness, our broken spirits, our broken hearts, our broken self-images, and our broken relationships with others, with ourselves, and with God. No amount of self-justification on our part can effect that cure. In fact, it can keep us from that cure. God can do something if we trust God and what Don Browning, in his book Atonement and Psychotherapy, refers to as God’s “unconditioned empathic acceptance.” But God can do nothing with the one who uses his or her own moral performance, standards, and prerequisites as the basis for a self-justification that assumes that God is thereby obligated to love us and accept us. Though it may sound and feel somewhat demeaning to do so, whatever healing of our brokenness is possible will depend on our willingness to embrace the humility expressed in the words of the hymn “Rock of Ages”:

Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to thy cross I cling;
Naked come to thee for dress,
Helpless, look to thee for grace.

There is a place in the economy of our lives for a healthy self-justification that has to do with self-regard and self-respect. The Declaration of Independence, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the civil rights movement were acts of self-justification. They were defiant testimonies to self-regard and self-respect, declaring that people would no longer tolerate oppressive tyranny or treatment as aliens and slaves, things to be used and exploited for the amusement and aggrandizement of others.

Then there is the self-justification of self-deception by which frauds and con artists and charlatans masquerade as someone else, exhibitionism passes itself off as transparency, self-serving actions are taken with little or no regard for consequences that create problems for or can be fatal to others, wars are started under false pretenses, and individual and collective moral bankruptcy hide behind a facade of arrogant self-righteousness.

It is this kind of self-justification that keeps a person or a group from experiencing the healing power of God’s unconditioned empathic acceptance and love. Until the mask of hubris comes off, the leprosy remains uncured and the brokenness unhealed. Naaman almost did not make it.

A recent issue of the New York Times (1 August 2010) contained the remarkable story of Olympic swimmer Amanda Beard. Having amassed a number of championship medals, she subsequently descended into the darkness of a dissolute and dysfunctional life, immersed in alcohol and drugs and laden with frequent episodes of self-mutilation. Behind a mask of gregariousness and a toothy smile, Amanda hid the pain of her anger, sadness, and self-loathing. When she finally embarked on the road to recovery, she had an epiphany: she did not have to win every race in order to be loved.

You know what, Amanda? You’re right. You don’t have to win every race in order to be loved. In fact, when it comes to God’s love and acceptance you don’t have to win any race. You don’t have to win anything to be loved and accepted. For love and acceptance can’t be bought, bargained for, bribed, or bartered. They can’t be deserved or even, in the old-fashioned way, earned. There is no quid pro quo, for once there is, love and acceptance are no longer love and acceptance. They become part of a deal, not a covenantal promise.

God’s love and empathic acceptance are unconditional. They cannot be coerced. They are freely given. They are offered to you just as you are. They are offered to me just as I am.

And that, friends, is no hokum. Amen.