A Palm Sunday Meditation—The requirement to commit our lives in a certain direction.

Readings: Mark 11:1-11

From Roberto Mangabeira Unger’s “Religion of the Future” (Harvard University Press, 2014, pp. 58-59)

A third characteristic of religion is that the imperative of life, rooted in a vision of the world, responsive to the incurable defects in our existence, requires us to commit our lives in a certain direction. It requires us to commit our lives without having what, by the prevailing standards of rational discourse, could ever be an adequate basis on which to do so. Neither the evidence of the senses nor the application of our reasoning, within any established discipline or method or outside all particular methods and disciplines, can suffice to provide such a basis.
          Our faculties, our methods, our sensory access to the world all address aspects and fragments of our experience. They shadow and extend the range of our actions. No matter how extensive their subject matter or scope of application may become, they never lose their fragmentary and restricted character. In religion, however, we must take a position with respect to the limiting and shaping features of our experience as a whole. For this task, our equipment is, by its very nature and origin, inadequate. Nevertheless, the need to do what we will always be unprepared to accomplish is inescapable.
          If the position to take were only cognitive, we might be able to take no position at all. However, it is not merely cognitive; it goes to our need to form an attitude, implicit and unelaborated if not explicit and fully formed, to the most disturbing and perplexing aspects of our condition. We will have an attitude, whether we want to or not and whether or not we are fully conscious of the ideas informing it. In arriving at such an attitude, however, we are condemned to cognitive overreach: we must stake the course of our lives on suppositions whose grounds fail to do justice to the gravity of their implications and to the scope of their claims.

—o0o— 

ADDRESS
A Palm Sunday Meditation
The
requirement to commit our lives in a certain direction.

Palm Sunday is the day when Christians reflect upon the (almost certainly fictional) story found in all four of the canonical gospels concerning an event that the later Christian tradition called ‘Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem.’

Although the original author and later redactors of the story make Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem a triumphal one by the end of the week the welcoming crowd has turned into one bellowing for Jesus execution and the release of the criminal Barrabas. The crowd and its behaviour towards Jesus comes to play a powerful didactic part in the yearly re-telling of Christian story as a reminder of the fickle nature of human support and faithfulness to Jesus who, for believing Christians don’t forget, is the incarnation of God himself. To illustrate this kind of teaching in the contemporary Christian context here are some lines quoted verbatim from a homily by Deacon Greg Kendra who serves the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, New York. (Just to note that, although I disagree with the position expressed here by Deacon Kendra, I do not quote him to belittle or mock but simply so I have a benchmark against which it is possible to measure my own understanding of one of the lessons we might learn from the to Palm Sunday story.):

‘But before we get too caught up in next Sunday, we need this Sunday. We need to remember. Remember that the crowd that cheered Jesus also condemned him. Remember that the voices praising him also called for his death. Remember that those who loved him and promised loyalty also abandoned him, denied him, and betrayed him. And if you want to know who did that, just look at the palm branches in our hands. We are guilty’ (Source here).

Now, if you grew up in a church-going Christian context as I did, homilies of this kind can still, on occasions, catch me by surprise and be surprisingly powerful. This is because they serve to remind me of how I have most definitely not remained loyal to the Christian Church’s teaching about Jesus as being in someway the second person of the Holy Trinity and, therefore, also very God of very God. I may continue to value aspects of the human Jesus’ teaching and example but, since I utterly reject the supernatural claim that he is the incarnation of God — and indeed reject the idea that the God of theism even exists — from the Church’s perspective I am indeed part of the fickle crowd who, having praised Jesus with hosannas in my innocent childhood and early teens, now knowingly ‘betrays’ him in my skeptical adulthood.   

But the truth is that today (to quote from James W. Woelfel) ’in my own ongoing struggle to make sense of the Christian context of life- and world-interpretation I find basic elements of that context which I simply cannot render coherent any longer, and I earnestly wonder how other persons manage to’ (The Death of God: A Belated Personal Postscript). Given this I have no choice but to ‘betray’ the Jesus of orthodox Christian understanding.

However, as I sat down to pen this address I realised I can only be guilty in the way Deacon Kendra thinks I am if I allow myself to be seduced into thinking that the phenomenon of being in a real, actual existent crowd in our actually unfolding world is the same as being, once a year as a Christian believer imaginatively in the crowd in the fixed, fictional world of the gospels. But they are not the same, far, far from it.

Imaginatively being in the crowd once a year in the fixed fictional world of the gospels as a Christian believer is to be in a situation in which you are seduced into thinking it is possible always-already to live knowing the beginning, middle and the end of some single, master narrative in which you are playing a part. It is to stand by the roadside already ’knowing’ this person passing before you is the Christ, born of a virgin and who is the saviour of the world, God with Us, Emmanuel. It is also already ‘to know’ that, although Christ will be executed at the end of the week, three days later he will be resurrected in order later to ascend into glory to sit at the right hand of the Father from whence, forever more, he shall judge the quick and the dead. In short, imaginatively to be in the crowd as a Christian believer is to to be a person who believes it is possible to understand and view the world from some God like vantage. But, as I hope you realise, such a vantage point (were it to exist, which I personally doubt) is always inaccessible to human kind. But it is precisely from this viewpoint that the Church believes it is able to preach a Palm Sunday lesson to us about commitment, loyalty and betrayal. Hmmm.
 
But now imagine yourself in an actual crowd in the world as it always-already actually unfolds for us welcoming some new political or religious person promoting this or that new political or religious program and doing this — i.e. when (as is always the case) we neither know the beginning nor the end of the story, nor even if there might emerge from it all any single, simple, master narrative that can be told in years to come.

Standing in such a crowd let’s begin to draw upon the words we heard earlier from Roberto Unger. Unger points out that a major

‘. . . characteristic of religion is that the imperative of life, rooted in a vision of the world, responsive to the incurable defects in our existence, requires us to commit our lives in a certain direction.’

Unger, and I guess most of us here, knows that a life lived without making some such conscious commitment to living a life in a certain political and religious direction is deeply unsatisfactory and empty in some profound way. I have no doubt that this was something also recognised by those in the crowd on the first Palm Sunday. All of us, then and now and in our own very different ways, are always on the lookout for that religious or political wheel against which we feel confident enough for us willingly to put our shoulder and push with full commitment and without any doubts. After all, that’s why we are in a church today, isn’t it? In this existential situation of knowing we need to commit our lives in a certain direction we are wholly kith and kin with members of the crowd mentioned in the gospels.

But we know that now, as then, we have far from complete information about the person and/or religious and political program in question. Sure, we might have heard some attractive and intriguing stories about them but then we have heard many similar stories told about many other such people and programs. But, you may say to yourself, ‘You never know, perhaps this is the real thing and the movement behind which I can get fully behind’ and so you join the crowd at some event or other in your home town. Perhaps, on the day, you even find yourself getting caught up in the event and its immediate sense of enthusiasm and general hope and find yourself enthusiastically waving the modern equivalent of a palm branch — it’s likely to be a placard — and shouting a modern version of ’Hosanna!’ Perhaps you get a copy of the manifesto, buy the tee-shirt and the button badge too. You might, on the other hand, be minded to be a bit more circumspect and keep an open and skeptical mind and simply watch and listen from a safe distance — let’s say in your own home via a live-stream or a website. Perhaps, after seeing the launch event, you might decide straightaway that, actually, they’re just another blowhard and their program is, in fact, highly problematic and flawed. Then, as now, all of these interpretations of the person and their program, and many more besides, are all perfectly possible and the truth is that the interpretation you hold today is one you may decide to reject tomorrow.

But the point I want to stress is that standing there in the crowd — any crowd — ‘on the day’ — you do not have enough information to decide in any fully rational and fully evidenced-based way whether or not you are going to commit to them and their program and, what is more important, you will never have enough information to choose securely — not then in the crowd that welcomed Jesus, not today in another crowd welcoming someone else.

But please be clear, standing in the crowd trying to decide whether to get behind this or that person and/or this or that religious, social or political program — then or now — is never merely an abstract question because it always concerns the matter of how you are going authentically to live the only life you have. As Unger points out if it were simply an abstract question then ‘we might be able to take no position at all’ but, he goes on to say

‘. . . it is not merely cognitive; it goes to our need to form an attitude, implicit and unelaborated if not explicit and fully formed, to the most disturbing and perplexing aspects of our condition. We will have an attitude, whether we want to or not and whether or not we are fully conscious of the ideas informing it. In arriving at such an attitude, however, we are condemned to cognitive overreach: we must stake the course of our lives on suppositions whose grounds fail to do justice to the gravity of their implications and to the scope of their claims.’

However, Deacon Greg Kendra — and Christian preaching on this day in general — seems not to understand that there can exist no simple guilty/innocent binary choice when it comes to deciding (in their terms or yours, then as now) whether to be loyal to Jesus or to betray him (then or now). The Christian viewpoint does not allow us to see the deeply anomalous and contingent nature of our world that could never make Jesus, or the Christian church’s view of Jesus, something self-evidently simple and eternal to which you must either always be either fully loyal or which you choose to betray.

From where I'm standing in the crowd the lesson to learn from Palm Sunday is not the simple, “Ladybird Book of Holy Week and Easter” which speaks of either being loyal to Jesus or betraying him — that’s a deeply unhelpful, unhealthy and wholly false binary choice. Instead, for me, the truer lesson of the day seems to be about learning humbly to acknowledge that, although we can never know with anything approaching absolute certainty that the religious and political commitments, we still have to make them if we are to have anything approaching an authentic and fulfilled life and that, whatever we chose, ‘we will have an attitude, whether we want to or not and whether or not we are fully conscious of the ideas informing it.’ 

It seems to me that this unsettling thought is a worthy question upon which to ponder during Holy Week and the run-up to Easter and during a time in history when the false binary of ‘you are either loyal to us or a betrayer’ is becoming disturbingly popular once again. It never was, nor ever will be, that simple.

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