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Beyond All Science And Supposition – The Rev. Morgan Allen – The Hill

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Before October of 2017, scientists defined astronomical objects as those cosmic bodies not gravitationally bound to a star (and, themselves, not stars) and customarily classified them as either “comets” or “asteroids.”  Then, as if from pulp-fiction pages or a Welles-ian radio broadcast, astronomers tracked a new body – an “interstellar object,” they would call it – which entered our solar system last year.  First viewed by a Hawaiian telescope, its discovering scientists nicknamed the object ‘Oumuamua, meaning “scout” in the islands’ Polynesian language, and this “scout” behaved oddly, changing speeds and directions independent of its trajectory and the forces to which it should be subject.[i]

Then, last week, Harvard astronomer Abraham Loeb published a paper proposing, “‘Oumuamua may be a fully operational probe sent intentionally to Earth[’s] vicinity by an alien civilization.”[ii]  Allow me to read that to you again: ‘Oumuamua may be a fully operational probe sent intentionally to Earth[’s] vicinity by an alien civilization.  Loeb continues, suggesting that the discrepancies in its behavior can be “readily solved if ‘Oumuamua does not follow a random trajectory but is rather a targeted probe.”[iii]  As for next steps, Loeb proposes, “Since it is [now] too late to image [the lightsail] with existing telescopes or chase its chemical propulsion rockets … its likely origin and mechanical properties [can] only be deciphered by searching for other objects of its type in the future.”[iv]  In other words, by the time we see the next alien probe, the humanoid “Visitors” from V, will already be upon us and resistance will be futile![v]

Even if we have occupied ourselves with daily schedules, step counters, and shopping lists, I take heart that our “joy and wonder in all [God’s] works” yet endures beneath the surface of all our busy-ness-es.[vi]  More exciting than I find the prospect of a real-life Space Invaders, then, I appreciate that Loeb’s paper has sparked among us some wide-eyed stargazing – granting us permission for some less boundaried wondering on the what-if’s … and the what’s-beyond’s … and the how-can-it-all-be’s.  Surely such genuine curiosities are good for our souls.

See, before Modernity granted us the smug confidence that we could understand all mysteries, the authors of scripture wondered more humbly, and, therefore, braved to imagine and propose ideas about our connections to God and to one another that exceeded the known possibilities of science and supposition.  While we hear only a snippet of Hebrews this morning, its author imagines just this boldly, marveling at the work of Christ, and pointing us toward our meaningful participation in the continuing revelation of God.

Though traditionally identified as the apostle Paul, that attribution is unlikely given Hebrews’ distinctive language and style.  This author, probably writing between 60 and 90 CE,[vii] witnesses an education in Greek rhetoric and Jewish liturgics.  A Christian in the apostolic tradition, the author may have been raised in the generation following the apostles who walked with Jesus, as indicated in the second chapter: “It was declared at first through the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard him.”[viii]  Fred Craddock observes, “The entire letter carries a tone of authority, of one who has the right and the obligation to remind, to instruct, to warn, and to encourage,” implying “that the writer is one in a position of [significant] authority, either by reason of office or of long relationship.”[ix]

Though, historically, the letter has been deployed as a polemic against Judaism, Hebrews intends to encourage a specific community of Christians, not to convert or to condemn Jews.  As Craddock unequivocally argues, “The writer appeals to the Old Testament as a living Word of God and presents his case for the Christian faith as being in continuity with that Word.  To read Hebrews as an attack on Judaism is to misread Hebrews.”[x]

In the third chapter, the author exhorts this Christian congregation the letter intends as a primary audience: “Christ … was faithful over God’s house as a son, and we are his house if we hold firm the confidence and the pride that belong to hope.”[xi]  However, this house is “a faith community in crisis.”  Perhaps because of the unexpected delay in Christ’s return, “Some members have grown lax in attendance, and commitment is waning.”[xii]  Chapter 12 specifically warns against their sloth: “lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths to your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed.”[xiii]

This morning’s appointment from Hebrews centers a three-chapter section focusing on the cosmic nature and implications of Christ.  To understand the author’s imagery, let us review the ideas of Plato’s cave.

In Book VII of The Republic, Plato explains his idea of Forms.  On your handout, the diagram (borrowed from a University of Washington philosophy professor[xiv]) images the described row of prisoners seated before the rightward wall.  “Here they have been from their childhood, and have their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move, and[, therefore,] can only see before them, being prevented by the chains from turning round their heads.”[xv]  The inmates cannot see that behind them burn two sources of light: one, from a fire just above them; and, a second, from sunlight entering through the cave’s mouth.

Between “the fire and the prisoners there is a raised [platform]; and you will see, if you look, a low wall built along the way, like the screen which marionette players have in front of them[, and] over which they show their puppets.”[xvi]  In thirty-second shorthand, Plato proposes that the puppeteers carry the Forms – the universals or archetypes – of the shadows they cast.  Therefore, while the prisoners believe they see substantives, we of a more enlightened perspective realize they see only shadows of the Forms’ higher realm.

With that understanding, would someone read aloud [also on your handout] Hebrews 8:1-5, concluding with the bolded text: [“Now the main point in what we are saying is this: we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens, a minister in the sanctuary and the true tent* that the Lord, and not any mortal, has set up.  For every high priest is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices; hence it is necessary for this priest also to have something to offer.  Now if he were on earth, he would not be a priest at all, since there are priests who offer gifts according to the law.  They offer worship in a sanctuary that is a sketch and shadow of the heavenly one …’”][xvii]

Set these ideas in the allegory of the cave: Jesus, as the “high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens, a minister in the sanctuary and the true tent of the Lord,” is in that higher realm of the Forms.  Here on earth, we worship “in a sanctuary that is a sketch and shadow of [that] heavenly one” – connected, but distinct, particular according to the many and varied “screens” of our prayers.  In the broader letter, the Hebrews epistoler relates both the mobile, desert tabernacle Moses raised during the Exodus, and the emerging Christian devotions of the First Century, [relates these settings of prayer,] to Christ’s heavenly worship of God.

Importantly, then, the “fault” of both worshipping communities is not that they worship according to their Mosaic precepts or according to their Christian rubrics.  Rather, their “offense,” so-called in the letter, is misunderstanding their worship as an end, rather than a means – as the Form, rather than a shadow.  According to Plato, such a misunderstanding is predictable: “And now look again, and see what will naturally follow if the prisoners are released and disabused of their error.  At first, when any of them is liberated and compelled suddenly to stand up and turn his neck round and walk and look towards the light, he will suffer sharp pains; the glare will distress him … will he not be perplexed?  Will he not fancy that the shadows which he formerly saw are truer than the objects which are now shown to him?”[xviii]

Do we, too, not find the “glare” of our God “distressing”?  Are we not “perplexed” when confronted by such wonderful possibilities – beyond all science and supposition – whether those imagined by ‘Oumuamua, or those imagined by the loving witness of Christ?  Let us not be frightened by hope, joy, or wonder!  In the language of Plato, the shadows participate in their Forms – what powerful language for our Christian worship.  When we gather before this altar, then, we bind ourselves to heaven and we participate in Christ’s continuing worship.  Ours is “a sanctuary made by human hands,” yes, “a mere copy of the true one,” as we heard in this morning’s appointment, but bound to Christ in heaven itself, “Christ [appearing] in the presence of God on our behalf.”[xix]

Quoting from Jeremiah, Hebrews encourages, “This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”[xx]  Lending this idea our wide-eyed stargazing rather than our modern skepticism, imagine that in the mystery of our worship we do not move or direct God, but that God moves us.  In our world – which can weigh so heavily upon our spirits and in which our hopeful efforts can seem so painfully meager – take heart that we are not alone in faithful labor!  Rather, with every prayer and every hymn, with every offering faithfully lifted, Christ worships in heaven with us … and God is at work on us …. inspiring and inscribing nothing less than Love upon our very souls.

That it would be so, in this moment and always,

Amen.

[i] George, Steve & Ashley Strickland. “Interstellar Object May Have Been Alien Probe, Harvard Paper Argues, But Experts Are Skeptical.CNN. November 6, 2018.
[ii] Bialy, Shmuel & Abraham Loeb. “Could Solar Radiation Pressure Explain ‘Oumuamua’s Peculiar Acceleration?”  The Astrophysical Journal Letters. Accepted for publication November 6, 2018, p. 4.  From the abstract: “We discuss the possible origins of such an object including the possibility that it might be a lightsail of artificial origin.”
[iii] Ibid.
[iv] Ibid.
[v] V. Written and Directed by Kenneth Johnson. Warner Brothers Television. 1983. Tagline: “They come in peace … to enslave humankind!”
[vi] From “Holy Baptism” in the Book of Common Prayer, p. 308.
[vii] Craddock, Fred. “The Letter To The Hebrews: Introduction, Commentary, And Reflections.” New Interpreters Bible, Volume XII. Abingdon Press, 1998.  As Craddock notes, “The primary external evidence [of Hebrews dating] is the letter of Clement of Rome to the church in Corinth.  In chapter 36 of that letter, Clement quotes and paraphrases key passages from Hebrews 1-3.  Clement’s letter is generally, though not unanimously, dated 95-96 EC.  Thus, Hebrews must be dated earlier … The high Christology[, however,]… demands a date as late as possible.”
[viii] Hebrews 2:3.
[ix] Craddock, p. 8.
[x]Ibid.
[xi] Hebrews 3:4.
[xii] Craddock, p. 9.  Craddock notes that, given this unexpected delay in Christ’s return, some scholars propose the Hebrews author wrote to address the community’s need for a more substantial Christology, one which inspired and shaped Christianity’s emerging liturgical devotions.
[xiii] Hebrews 12:12-13.
[xiv] On the handout I distributed, I reproduced the image on S. Marc Cohen’s 2006 webpage for his Philosophy 320 course.  The sketch is widely available on the interwebs, but this one seemed least likely to carry a virus.
[xv] Plato. The Republic. Translated by Benjamin Jowett. Project Gutenberg, 2016.  Super handy HTML version of the text (though without line or page numbers).
[xvi] Ibid.
[xvii] Hebrews 8:1-5.
[xviii] Plato.
[xix] Hebrews 9:24.
[xx] Hebrews 8:10 and 10:16, both quoting Jeremiah 31:31-34.