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Who Do You Say that You Are?
 

Reading: Matthew 16:13-19

Jesus asked a question we all carry with us in some form or other: Who do folks say that I am? What do people think of me? How do they see me? How do I appear in their eyes? We all wonder about it. Does the image people have of me correspond with the image I have of myself?

But I wish one of the disciples had had enough chutzpah to put the question back to Jesus: Who do you say you are? I'd give a lot to know the answer to that one.

But the focus is on how we would answer it. What if we took a sheet of paper, drew a line down the middle, and put on the left side the things we like about ourselves and on the right, the things we don't like. Which side would be more full? What would those lists tell us about

  • relationships
  • values
  • ethics
  • spirituality
  • gifts, skills, abilities
  • struggles
  • sadnesses
  • place in the world (perceived)
  • personality

And I wonder how someone else might fill in those lists about me. One thing I'm pretty sure would be true: those things that someone did not like about me would have some pretty close corollaries with the things they didn't like about themselves.

I am convinced that we are, at our very core, creatures of relationship - that from the moment of birth (and probably before), we have a deeply rooted hunger for connection with somebody or something outside ourselves. And we are, for the most part, born into at least a potential matrix for those relationships. After all, we are born not simply as a baby girl or boy, but rather as son or daughter, niece or nephew, grandchild, brother, sister, cousin, ... the list could go on. In the reading from Matthew, Jesus addressed Peter as Simon Bar-Jonah - Simon son of Jonah. That was the naming custom of Jesus' time. Do you remember the name of the criminal whom the crowds elected to release instead of Jesus? He was called Barabbas. Jesus had scandalized the more traditional members of Judaism by referring to God as Abba - a particularly intimate form of father. The thief was Bar-Abbas, son of the father or, to use Jesus' terminology, son of God. We see a similar naming custom from other times and places in names like Anderson or Johnson. That is our first matrix of relationship, and it is our first glimpse of just who we are. Over the years we build on that notion.

But what do we build, and how much do we build? It is fairly easy to add people to the list. Playmates, schoolmates, workmates, neighbours - all those people with whom life throws us together are potential sources of relationships and connections. And we begin to build our own - best friend, girl- or boy-friend, fiance, spouse, partner. In all of these, to varying degrees, we get a glimpse of ourselves through the eyes of another, and thus add a new dimension to our answer to Who do you say that you are?

And there are some with whom we are connected in less positive ways - abuser, enemy, bully, competitor (for whole varieties of things). Many relationships are with people who have at least some qualities which we would like to emulate. But there are also people in our lives whose primary characteristics (for us) are the things we see in them that we want above all not to make part of ourselves. We are nonetheless in relationship with them, and they with us.

Those relationships all have one thing in common: they are all with other people. But is that the extent of our relationships? I suspect that, for many, it probably seems that it is. But I frankly doubt that that is actually true. We are also in relationship with various institutions - schools, churches (of all sorts!), political parties, interest groups, professional organizations, ... again, the list goes on and on. There is a new element in these relationships. We are still connecting with various people, but now those people are a part of something else, something which significantly influences their behaviour, their thinking, their attitudes, and, inevitably, their relationships. Our connections here are with both the individuals and the organizations and institutions which they represent. An interesting and very current case of this can be clearly seen in the US. Barak Obama won the presidency, in no small part, because he was able to give people a sense of direct connection with him personally - his beliefs, his attitudes, his hope, and so on. That's a large part of what charisma is all about. People were energized, encouraged, and made hopeful by this sense of connection with him. But lately, as he has laboured mightily (in my view) to put some of his views into practise, he has come to be seen more and more as a politician, bound and beholden, as all politicians are, to a vast web of interests and pressures. He could not function as president if he were not enmeshed to some degree in this web. But part of the cost of that enmeshing is that people begin to lose that sense of purely personal connection with him - I'm so disappointed; he's turning into just another politician. In many ways, he simply can't win. He is the embodiment of the institution of the US Presidency, and a relationship with an institution is not nearly so satisfying as one with an individual.

We have other institution-based relationships. A couple of months ago, I spoke of the Empire of Global Capitalism. What is our relationship with that particular reality of our world? If that Empire had a designated spokesperson (a great many speak from it, but not so many for it), I suspect he or she would express who I am by how well I support the Empire - in my economic decisions, in my political actions, in my conversations, and so on. (I also suspect I wouldn't be rated very highly.) Though there may be no such spokesperson, nonetheless that is a relationship which I must take into account when I am asked, Who do you say that you are?

There is one other potential source of relationship I want to mention in passing, though I should put relationship in quotes in this case. That is our relationship with things. Two examples will, I think, show what I mean: cars, and computers (and their offspring, like cell phones, x-boxes, etc.). It's hard to deny that we have a relationship with such objects - often a love-hate relationship - but on the other hand it is hard to imagine ourselves asking our car or our computer, Who do you say that I am?

So our sense of who we are arises mostly from a whole variety of different relationships, built from the moment of our birth to the moment of our death. This should not be too surprising, as it is in these relationships that we gradually perceive how we are seen, and compare those perceptions with how we are or how we want to be. Our own sense of identity flows out of this dense and fertile matrix.

But there is a relationship that is, far too often, left out of the process, and it is one I believe to be essential, as important as any of the others. That is our relationship with our world, and the cosmos of which it is a part. We live in the age of postmodern scientific materialism. The phrase belongs to Bruce Sanguin, in his excellent book Darwin, Divinity, and the Dance of the Cosmos". Sanguin suggests that the understandings engendered by postmodern scientific materialism lead us to believe that we are situated in an incomprehensibly enormous and meaningless universe, travelling through space on a hunk of matter, going nowhere in particular, and left to our own devices to generate some kind of meaning. This meaning is ultimately no more than our truth. And so we are caught in a bind. Scientific materialism suggests that there is only matter, and that we can understand it fully if only we can break it down finely enough and study it long enough. It is the child of the Enlightenment, midwifed into life by the scientific method. If we are on good terms with (ie accept as fundamentally true) the notions and understandings of this scientific materialism, we find ourselves pretty much insignificant and meaningless. How much we accept this view can be indicated by a couple of fairly simple experiments.

For eight years, Charlotte and I lived in the Rocky Mountains of British Columbia. While we were not all that far above sea level, when we looked out from our front yard, the horizon line was one mile away from and one mile above the spot where we stood. Over the years, I noticed two reactions to that location. One (my own, among others) was to be drawn up by the immensity of the landscape - its majesty, its grandeur, and somehow a sense of its wisdom. The mountains seemed to invite me to live on a larger scale than just the ten acre field that was our front yard. They were powerfully inspirational and, in some way I could never quite define for myself, inviting.

But there was another feeling that arose in some people when confronted with this landscape. Oh, I could never live here. It's beautiful, but it is so large it makes me feel utterly insignificant. The immensity of the landscape seemed to overpower the more comfortable human scale for these people.

Cassini image of Saturn with Earth as blue dot in rings
The second experiment doesn't require that you travel 5,000 km to get to the Canadian Rockies. If you close your eyes, you can probably visualize it as I describe it. Simply go outside late on a dark, moonless night. If possible, go outdoors somewhere well outside of any town or city. Bundle up warmly enough to stay comfortably outside for 15 minutes or so. Turn off any nearby lights. Now look up, and file in your memory what you first see. You probably won't see but a handful of stars, but keep looking. Gradually, over several minutes, your eyes will adjust to the darkness (something they rarely encounter), and an unbelievable carpet of stars will gradually appear. As you see the Milky Way become more and more clear and dramatic (and beautiful!), keep in mind that what you are really seeing is an edge-on view of a fairly flat double spiral galaxy, larger than we can imagine. Watch it unfold, and think back to how the sky looked when you first looked up, through your light-diminished eyes. It is a scene that is, quite literally, breathtaking.

And now comes the question: how does this sight make you feel? Drawn into its mystery and wonder? Or dwarfed to the point of nonexistence by its immensity?

Neither answer is, in any large sense, correct. But our response says much about who we say that we are. If our identity is wrapped entirely in the clothes of humanity (remarkable as those clothes are), then the immensity of the Rockies or the stars is probably more than we can connect with, other than to analyze and dissect them. But if our identity is, instead related to our sense of connectedness with the whole cosmos which has given birth to us and everything we see (and, incidentally, everything that we don't see), then that same immensity is an invitation - to a scale of living, to a way of understanding, to a depth of mystery and meaning, that enable us to live larger and fuller lives as part of something far larger than we are or can fully understand. That connection with immensity is, in the deepest sense, life-giving and life-sustaining. I believe that it is what our humanity calls us to engage, and it is at the core of who we truly are.