Primary Sources

Sermon preached by James Harbeck at Church of the Holy Trinity, Toronto, January 29, 2012

Deuteronomy 18:15–20; 1 Corinthians 8:1–13; Mark 1:21–28

In the Gospel, it says the people in the synagogue were astonished at the teaching of Jesus, because he taught them as one having authority, not as the scribes did. After he cast out the demon, they said to each other, “A new teaching – with authority!”

What does that mean here? Does it mean that the scribes would go up and say [namby-pamby voice] “Oh, well, you know, I think maybe you should sort of do this or something,” and Jesus said “OK, you, do this! You, do that!”

Well, not exactly. What it is is something that will be awfully familiar to a lot of us here, university-educated as we are, and used to reading – and writing – academic papers as we may be.

Say you want to make some important suggestion. Say you want to present some striking theoretical insight. Do you just write a paper and say, “Well, this is this, and that’s that”?

Or do you research a whole bunch and use the thoughts of others as signposts and stalking horses and finally present what you think as a sort of new interpretation echoing some insight that some respected figure once had? Oh, I know this one; there was a time when I wrote lots of stuff like this: [academic discourse tone] “We see that, whereas in Brecht aesthetic perception is fundamentally detached and must remain so, in Artaud the experience is immersive to the point of sado-masochism. As the point, in an extra-daily encounter such as the theatre, is to enter what Schechner and Turner, among others, have persuasively characterized as a liminal state, which necessarily involves a more Dionysian encounter, to use Nietzsche’s terminology, we may view a more circumscribed version of the Artaudian experience as essential.”

Why put it that way? Because who, in an academic context, would pay attention to me if I just said “You turn to the arts to escape your controlled daily existence, so what we are aiming for in the arts is a contained loss of control”? What authority do I have? I know what I know and I think it’s right, but I need other people to know that I know what they expect me to know so I can say that I truly understand the topic and that my insights are valid and are based on not just what is known but what is known to be known. We all know that if you want to say something reliable about something, you need to go to the horse’s mouth – get it from where it actually came from. The primary source. Which I, of course, wasn’t. Who was I? Some graduate student.

Likewise, the scribes in Jesus’ time were always citing precedent. Anything new had to have justification from existing scripture or the words of some respected rabbi. Have a read through the Gospel of John and you’ll see a fair few places where it points out that what happened to Jesus was the fulfillment of some verse of scripture. For instance, after he is taken down from the cross, it says, “These things occurred so that the scripture might be fulfilled, ‘None of his bones shall be broken.’ And again another passage of scripture says, ‘They will look on the one whom they have pierced.’” Your copy of the Bible might even have footnotes telling you where these were said (Exodus 12:46 and Zechariah 12:10). Beyond that, the gospels are quite full of lines from the Hebrew scripture that anyone of the time who had studied them would recognize, just as we may recognize Shakespeare quotes.

For my part, as a graduate student, I actually found this “cite everything” approach very frustrating. Even as I was doing it, I wasn’t agreeing with having to do it. I wrote a letter that was published in TDR, a leading journal in performance studies, that I titled “In praise of preposterous propositions.” In it, I pointed out that a lot of the people we were citing in our theatre theory didn’t cite anyone. They just made stuff up. They were our primary sources precisely because they didn’t lean on anyone else. Artaud? Made it all up off the top of his head. Brecht? Yep, pretty much the same. Said “Here are some ideas I have and I think we should do things this way to produce this effect.” Sometimes it’s really necessary to just step up and say something so whacked-out that people gasp. To become the primary source.

And then, of course, the rubber hits the road. If you make a statement about the way things are or the way things should be, the next thing is to see if your hypotheses are predictive. That’s not just how the scientific method works. It’s also what today’s first reading, from Deuteronomy, told us. “If a prophet speaks in the name of God but the thing does not take place or prove true, it is not actually the word of God.” Now, we know that in the sphere of politics, many people will take things as God’s honest truth even when time and time again it has proven disastrously false. But if you want to get by in a field that truly relies on intellectual rigour, you have to make predictions that can be tested, and then they have to be tested.

It’s different in the sciences than in the humanities, of course. Things can be quite fuzzy in the arts and humanities; predictions are made about things that are impossible to measure accurately, or are subjective; sometimes the theory creates its own effect. So often we will turn to inspiring figures for authority: Artaud said this and I really like it. But in the sciences, the authority is what you can prove with empirical means. You have an experiment, or a set of measurements to take. If you want to see if a certain drug produces benefit, you set one or more endpoints – positive ones, such as cure of the condition, or negative ones, such as heart attack or death – and you have a bunch of people take the medication while another bunch of people take something that looks like the medication but is actually inert – a placebo – and you set a time frame in which to collect the observations. And you say the treatment group had a one-year incidence of fatal heart attack of 2 per thousand while the placebo group had a one-year incidence of fatal heart attack of 5 per thousand, and with this sample size these results are reliable within one percentage point 19 times out of 20.

So this sounds a little different from what prophets do. A prophet is usually predicting a specific event at a specific time. That’s really easy. To take a current example, on December 22, 2012, a whole bunch of people are going to feel really stupid if the world hasn’t had some sort of cataclysm. But when we’re talking theology in church, it’s somewhat more difficult. The timeline may stretch to the end of time; the endpoints may be entirely beyond the means of our instrumentation.

On the other hand, much of what is said by spiritual leaders is focused on the here and now. The instruction can come from observing people, sitting, listening quietly, searching for the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Some things really do seem self-evident on reflection. I saw a quote the other day from the Buddha: “You will not be punished for your anger. You will be punished by your anger.” [smack head] Of course! But other things are more controversial, as they say in the sciences. Many of the teachings of Jesus seem so whacked-out socialistic to many people that they just convince themselves he said something more or less the opposite. “He didn’t mean give away your wealth and care for the poor. He meant getting rich is a sign of God’s blessing!” And while casting out demons seems pretty convincing, the more usual pronouncements we get regarding our mental, emotional, and spiritual states are things you have to try and see the result, and the results will often be internal and thus unverifiable in any objective sense.

So what do you do when you talk about these spiritual things? What do you do if you have some insight that you want to step up and convince people is true? For that matter, what do you do if you have to step up and say something but you’re not really, um, inspired by the Spirit?

This is one reason for all those citations, of course. If you don’t have anything to say that you really believe is earth-shattering and authoritative, you might just twiddle around in your sources and see what other people have said. Sometimes it becomes very derivative indeed. I used to get so frustrated when I was on an email list that was focused on aesthetic philosophy, because some people would spend all their time and energy arguing about what Kant said – did he say this or did he say that? – rather than arguing about what was or wasn’t in fact true. They made of Kant, and other noted thinkers, prophets whose word was true because they said it, and it remained to be determined just what they said. Look, it’s right there in Deuteronomy: even God doesn’t think you should take a prophet’s word just because he or she appears to be a prophet.

But, interestingly, that’s not what we do in theological discourse now, generally. We turn to scripture, of course. But we don’t usually spend a lot of time talking about what this or that thinker had to say about scripture. So if we’re offering an interpretation of scripture, or of reality with or without reference to scripture, what is our authority? Where do we turn to for authority? Do we have our own authority? Are we our own primary sources?

Of course, everyone keeps his or her own counsel. Even a person who follows a dogma to the letter has decided to do so. But in what we say to others to justify our positions, what authority do we call on? What are our endpoints?

I can tell you what authority people in the arts tend to call on when justifying their arts to people outside the arts. As with so many other things, they talk about economic benefit. Yes, arts are good because they provide employment and get money moving and give good return on investment and la la la… So is money the ultimate basis? Let me ask you: when you go to work and earn money, what do you spend it on? Well, among other things, you spend it on music, movies, theatre… the arts. So how can money be the justification for art when art is one of our motivations for getting money?

And when people talk about what good religion or spirituality is, what are the criteria? What do we call on for evidence? Health, well-being, social order, social justice, a whole lot of humanistic values. We like to talk about things that can be measured in the here and now because, uh, well, they’re things that can be measured in the here and now. We’re afraid that if we talk about anything more spiritual than that, people will brush it off because it’s inaccessible. Now, I know that some of you don’t happen to believe in anything more than the material, so that’s not a problem for you. For those of us who do, however, we might notice that we nonetheless tend to accept the framing of the discourse as though we don’t. We turn to the empirical for authority. But how can we persuade people to move beyond a materialistic perspective when all our arguments appeal to the materialistic a prioris?

Well, what else are we going to turn to for authority? If we’re talking to people who don’t accept the authority of the Bible, it’s senseless to quote the Bible for authority (though many people do that nonetheless). Anyway, citing the Bible requires understanding and interpretation, and on what authority do we proclaim this or that understanding? So what do we do?

Well, if I’m here to say that we are all part of the body of Christ, we are all pieces of God, drops of water in the ocean of God, and that we all have within us a connection to that universal divine, then I’m saying that we are all primary source material. Not that we all, off the tops of our heads, know all the answers, but that we all have the ability to find the answers through paying attention to God. That each of us is living a life that is an experiment – take a universal wholeness, pretend it is an infinity of parts, and let each part seek to find its way back to the wholeness, and to create a whole lot on the way. And all the stuff that we might think we want to turn to for authority is actually just feeding into the experiment, exists not to justify the experiment but in fact exists only with the justification of the experiment. And in order to convince people of this, where I can turn for authority is the people themselves, and say “Look, if you want, and see. I am a primary source; you are a primary source. I’m telling you what my experiment of me says; I encourage you to try to duplicate the results.”

Of course, we have the benefit of other people’s experience and insights; we don’t have to start from scratch, just as scientists know what other experiments have determined and they set out to build on it. We find what we find in the primary source of us because someone else has given us their results. Jesus is primary source material, that’s for sure. But so are we. Stop. Listen. Learn. Prophesy to yourself and see if you get it right. If not, listen more carefully and try again.

And put it into action. Otherwise you’re just planning an experiment, not actually undertaking it. We do live in a world of things that go bump, and of people who go bump too. Someone has to make everything happen. Here at Holy Trinity, for instance, there are a lot of things that need to be done. We know it’s valuable to us because when we earn our money we give some of it to the church. We should also remember that time and energy are valuable too. So let us all remember to contribute some of our prophetic energy to serving our community. We may be a non-profit organization, but we are a for-prophet organization.


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