Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Who Is In Secret | Ash Wednesday 2019

The Gospel reading for Ash Wednesday this year talks about the contrast between outward piety and inward, favoring the latter. The phrasing of it is interesting, as it speaks of God 'in secret.' The emphasis below was added to draw your attention.

“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you." Matthew 6:1-6 NRSV

“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." Matthew 6:16-21 NRSV

Whether these particular words were ever spoken by an apocalyptic preacher of 1st century Palestine, or were the work of the Gospel writer, the idea I want to look at is the secrecy of this god.

The lesson that Christians often take from this that they aren't supposed to be showy about their faith. Although, this doesn't seem to keep church groups from wearing matching volunteer shirts to go out tracting, cleaning highways, or putting on Bible schools for children in developing nations.

While it's good practice to not to attempt to use religion to draw attention to oneself, and I do think that's the main thrust of the passage, there may be a little more going on here. Notice that the god Jesus is talking about is 'in secret.' It is generally presumed that the god of Christianity is everywhere at all times, and not 'secret.' And yet, isn't he? We don't see any gods, have any real evidence of gods, or reasonably expect a god to visibly interact with events (yes I know about the religious people who do believe it). Past miracles are more believable than present ones, and those that are claimed in our times are generally not more than what could be called, rightly or wrongly, 'providence.'

It reminds me of those movies and TV shows from my childhood where some earth-shattering secret, like the presence of an alien on earth or someone having a superpower, is kept a complete secret. That was before we all got comfortable with the idea of a multiverse, and don't bat an eye at Grand Central Terminal getting smashed into by a Leviathan. It's as though if this or any god were to be demonstrably, verifiably real, something would be ruined.

Another way of looking at it is portrayed in a season three episode of Futurama:

God Entity: Bender, being God isn't easy. If you do too much, people get dependent on you, and if you do nothing, they lose hope. You have to use a light touch. Like a safecracker, or a pickpocket. 
Bender: Or a guy who burns down a bar for the insurance money! 
God Entity: Yes, if you make it look like an electrical thing. When you do things right, people won't be sure you've done anything at all.
This argument breaks down when we put too much weight on this: "If you do too much, people get dependent on you, and if you do nothing, they lose hope." Most of us would agree it isn't too much to ask for children to be saved from violence, and yet they die in wars and natural disasters, are molested, neglected, and/or beaten by parents or other caretakers, and fall down into wells. Some are saved, and many are not. Where is a god in all of this?

The only hands that will help us are human hands. We set up charities, social enterprises, foundations, governmental agencies and more to remove people from harm's way and lift them up. Often we get it right, and sometimes we get it wrong. I don't believe that any of the churches that are now dealing with the reality of sexual abusers in their midst organized themselves expressly to facilitate those acts. Through a mix of compromised theology, lack of best practices around working with minors, and patriarchal domination, churches that were established with the intent to help people be better (however much I disagree at times with their idea of what's 'better) have put women and children in danger.

There's no god that sees us in secret. Not really. What we have is agent detection telling us that there is purposeful intervention of outside forces in our lives. In the West we generally name this as 'God.' It's a feature that our distant ancestors acquired in order to survive, the well-worn example being the rustling bush. It could be the wind, or it could be a hungry lion. We assume purposeful intent and do our best to get away from the bush, if we want to be sure of passing along our genes.

The god that sees in secret is us. Each one of us with conscience wired into agent detection, and the sense that we should try to do more right than wrong. Sometimes that doesn't work well in everyone, which is why we should teach children to pay attention to their consciences. It's not always right, and we need not feel undue guilt, but it should give us pause when something feels off about our actions.

Although I'm a Unitarian Universalist Humanist (don't ask me to say that three times fast!), I'm perfectly fine with my fellow UUs who are theists. For the most part, they believe in this secret god, one who is benign, quiet, and has a very light touch. So long as atheists and agnostics aren't treated as second class or fortunate just to be included, it's all good to me. Perhaps you also believe in this secret god, and not the one who seems to be bellowing at us all the time through his more conspicuous adherents.

As Unitarian Universalists and friends enter this Lenten season, we can choose to either commune with this secret god or reflect deeply within ourselves (the result will be the same!) on who we are, where we are in history, and what this moment calls us to do, say, and be—both as individuals and as covenantal communities in a living tradition.