This reflection is based on the a reading from the First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 11:17-34) and an excerpt from St. Augustine’s Confessions (trans. Sister Maria Boulding, pp. 272-273), both reprinted below.
I am often confronted by the divisions within Christianity, not to mention among religions. I do not know if these issues ever keep any of you up at night, like they do me. But it’s really hard to find a solution to them in the Bible. In my universalism, my belief that all paths lead up the same mountain, I am drawn to verses like the one where Jesus says there are many rooms in his house, or where he says, “If you are not against me then you are with me,” or “Just love God and love you neighbor as yourself.” But there is a little voice in my head, the voice of a Rabbi named Aaron Cohen, who once told me, “If the Bible says one thing, you can be assured that somewhere else in the Bible it also says the exact opposite thing.” So I am reminded that Jesus also said, “No one comes to the Father except through me,” and “If you are not with me then you are against me.”
We see the same ambiguity here in Paul, where on the one hand he chastises the community at Corinth for their making divisions and judgments among themselves, but on the other hand he says, “Anyone who does it wrong will be punished.” And this brings me to the divisions within Christianity. A lot of my Catholic friends won’t take communion in the Episcopal Church. My Protestant friends are not allowed to take communion in the Catholic Church. And this small example of division doesn’t even begin to touch on the proliferation of differing versions of the Lord’s Supper I have observed in all of the other Christian denominations. Is the bread and wine really Christ’s body? Is it a symbol? Do we have to drink wine? Can we use grape juice? Water? Is it okay to use gluten-free bread? These are the types of questions Christians are grappling with.
Last night I came across this passage in St. Augustine’s Confessions. As I read it, I felt like Jesus would have really “approved this message” as we hear so often in this election year. The humility, charity, and illumination of his words seem to be the embodiment of That Which We Call “God.” If there is more than one interpretation of God’s word, and it is valid, then why not accept it? Why couldn’t God be speaking to each of us, meeting each of us right where we are, perfectly congruent with our capability at this very moment, welcoming all of us into his presence? Augustine is leading us to transcend our normal level of human consciousness. Human beings always want to know which way is right; We cannot conceive how it is with God, that many conflicting truths can be true at once.
This idea didn’t actually come to me for the first time upon reading Augustine last night before bed. It came to me in a conversation with my brother earlier in the day. My brother Carlton, a pianist and composer, was talking to me about an 1982 interview David Lettermen conducted with the late great Little Richard, who passed away on May 9.
Letterman started to ask Richard about his influence on rock music: “It is impossible to imagine what rock and roll would sound like if you hadn’t been born. If you hadn’t come along maybe rock and roll would have started different or later. I am sure it would have started sooner or later…”
And then Little Richard interrupted Letterman with a lack of humility that could only be matched by St. Paul: “I don’t believe it would have started at all,” Richard said. “Jimi Hendrix started out with me, my guitarist. James Brown was my back up vocalist. The Beatles started with me. Mick Jagger started with me. I was the architect of Rock.”
Like a true artist, Little Richard created something and then let it go, let it take on a life of its own. He didn’t judge which interpretation of his music was the best one or the right one. He simply basked in the glow of all of the many strands of creativity that took their cue from his. He was proud of them all – of the Beatles multi-faceted pop-rock, the Stones’ bluesy, gritty hard rock, Jimi Hendrix’s far-out psychedelic rock, James Brown’s funk, which was in itself a whole new genre. As my brother said, there is something important about Richard’s phrase “They started with me.” For all his seeming boastfulness, Richard didn’t desire replication. He was proud of what people did with the work he started.
If Little Richard could view the interpretations of his work in this way, with such love, pride, humility, and charity, it makes me wonder how God must view the countless interpretations of his Word. I imagine Jesus saying, “Do this in remembrance of me,” and then seeing Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Latter Day Saints, Christian Scientists, and more, all gathering to remember in their own way, each one thinking their way is the right way, and then Jesus thinking, like Augustine, “Why should you not think that I was aware of all of them, since the one God carefully tempered his sacred writings to meet the minds of many people, who would see different things in them, and all true?” In the Catholic and Episcopal churches we often prayer “Father, we pray for your holy Catholic Church; That we all may be one.” And I wonder if perhaps that prayer has always already been answered.
May we all live with outstretched arms, like those in this glimmering picture of Little Richard.
May we all welcome the truths that transcend us, open us, expand us.
May we all live to see the Truth that unites us.
A Reading from the First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 11: 17-34)
In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good. In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval. So then, when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, for when you are eating, some of you go ahead with your own private suppers. As a result, one person remains hungry and another gets drunk. Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God by humiliating those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you? Certainly not in this matter!
For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. But if we were more discerning with regard to ourselves, we would not come under such judgment. Nevertheless, when we are judged in this way by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be finally condemned with the world.
So then, my brothers and sisters, when you gather to eat, you should all eat together. Anyone who is hungry should eat something at home, so that when you meet together it may not result in judgment.
An Excerpt from St. Augustine’s Confessions (trans. Sister Maria Boulding, pp. 272-273)
[N.B. At the time Augustine wrote, people considered the Torah to have been written by Moses. Some Christians and Jews still believe this.]
Amid this profusion of true opinions let Truth itself engender concord; may our God have mercy on us and grant us to make lawful use of the law for the purpose envisaged by his commandment, pure charity. In that perspective, if anyone asks me which of [our interpretations] is what Moses, your servant, intended, these writings are no true confession of mine unless I confess to you, “I do not know.” Yet I do know that these opinions are valid…But let all of us who, as I acknowledge, discern rightly and speak truly on these texts, love one another and likewise love you, our God, the fount of truth, if truth is really what we thirst for, and not illusions…
Accordingly when anyone claims, “He meant what I say,” and another retorts, “No, rather what I find there,” I think that I will be answering in a more religious spirit if I say, “Why not both, if both are true? And if there is a third possibility, and a fourth, and if someone else sees an entirely different meaning in these words, why should we not think that he was aware of all of them, since it was through him that the one God carefully tempered his sacred writings to meet the minds of many people, who would see different things in them, and all true?
Of this I am certain, and I am not afraid to declare it from my heart, that if I had to write something to which the highest authority would be attributed, I would rather write it in such a way that my words would reinforce for each reader whatever truth he was able to grasp about these matters, than express a single idea so unambiguously as to exclude others, provided these did not offend me by their falsehood. It would therefore be over-hasty to conclude that Moses did not enjoy the same favor from you, O my God, that I am unwilling to think so. I am convinced that when he wrote those words what he meant and what he thought was all the truth we have been able to discover there, and whatever truth we have not been able to find, or have not found yet, but which is nonetheless there to be found.