When I was living in Maine, there was a Public Broadcasting program I used to catch every once in a while. It was called, Down Memory Lane. The host, Toby Leboutillier, would play music going back decades that, according to the website, originally “debuted on that day in music history.” Some of the music was before my time; old and scratchy. But often enough, I found myself listening to and enjoying songs I hadn’t heard in years.
In addition to the music, one regular feature on the show was Toby’s reading of old articles from that day in history that had appeared in the Bangor Daily News. Some of them were pretty interesting. One time he read a story from 1970 that talked about a tragedy that had just occurred during the construction of the Piscataqua River bridge. I couldn’t find the actual article Toby read on the air, but I did find something about it on the web:
On June 24, 1970, two of the I-beams supporting the staging area on the Kittery side of the span gave way, sending four workers 75 feet down to their death and leaving another seven injured. William Lorenz, a worker on the site who was rescued by firefighters, described the accident as follows: “I made a mad jump and grabbed a vertical beam. I shimmied up the thing about 15 feet until I reached a horizontal bar that I could cling to. Then I just hung on. I’m lucky to be alive.”
Years later, someone got around to interviewing Rick Portillo, who was part of the building crew on the bridge. He said, “there were less rigorous safety procedures––such as mandatory safety nets––at the time of construction.” (Article from Wikipedia)
That story came to mind because of a similar story I stumbled across. It seems that, during initial construction on the Golden Gate Bridge, no safety devices were used. Twenty-three men fell to their deaths. For the final part of the project, however, a large net was used as a safety precaution. At least 10 men fell into it and were saved from certain death. Even more interesting, however, is the fact that 25% more work on the bridge was accomplished after the net was installed. Apparently, once the men felt that they were safe, they went about their work with greater confidence and efficiency.
Personally, I’ve never done anything like that kind of work. I can hardly imagine it. There’s a famous picture you’ve probably seen of a bunch of construction workers sitting out on an I-beam having lunch. They seem completely relaxed and comfortable, apparently suspended hundreds of feet up over Central Park in Manhattan. The photo was taken back in 1932 atop the, then under construction, Rockefeller Center. If there was anything like a safety net under those men, you can’t see it in the picture. I don’t doubt though, that even as apparently fearless as these men were, they would have gotten more done in less time if they knew something was there to catch them. The fact is, most of us do better with a net than without one
And, interestingly, what is true in the physical world turns out to be equally true in the spiritual world. We do better with a net than without one. We do better when we know there is someone there to catch us when we fall, and, as far as the Bible is concerned, God is that someone. In passage after passage, God is said to be our refuge, our strength, our fortress, our shelter, our ever-present help in time of need. God is the love from which nothing can separate us. God is the shade that keeps us from being “smitten” by the heat of the sun. There is a multitude of passages in the Bible, all having to do, in one way or another, with the idea that God is our refuge and our salvation.
A few years ago I was reading a book by Anthony Robinson, an ordained UCC minister, author and teacher. The book is called, Transforming Congregational Culture. In it, Robinson asks an interesting question. Is God’s salvation something we actually need anymore? Good question. Do you personally experience a need to be saved? That’s not something we talk about around here very often is it. Robinson raised that question because, as he said, it strikes to the heart of the wrestling match going on right now between the church and the larger culture. He said, “There is a doctrine of human nature at work here. It is the doctrine of the autonomous individual who depends on nothing but his or her inner resources.”
Robinson traces this doctrine of human nature back through three of our most prominent philosophers. Descartes, he said, gave us the idea that our ability to think is what makes us distinctly human. “I think, therefore I am.” Then Rousseau came along saying that people were born essentially good by nature, and that whatever bad things people got into were the fault of the environment outside of this essentially good self. Finally, Emmanuel Kant added the notion that we don’t need “revelation” to know right from wrong. Everything we need to know about morality we can get to by reason alone.
When we mix all these ideas together, the upshot has been a dramatic rethinking of what it essentially means to be a person, a human being in society. After centuries of believing that we need God, suddenly we are being taught that we don’t need anything or anyone outside of ourselves because, from the moment of our birth, we are essentially, spirituality complete and morally perfect within ourselves, and all we have to do is get in touch with our beautifully uncorrupted “inner child.”
There’s a quote I came across way back in my first semester of college that came from one of Wayne Dyer’s early books, Your Erroneous Zones. The quote captures this idea perfectly. As I recall, it went something like this: “You will come to believe so much in yourself and your own inner resources that others will be seen as pleasant but superfluous adjuncts to your life.” Isn’t that wonderful. As I stand up here preaching, I find it pleasant that you are here, but also superfluous. So, if you’d like to leave right now, that would be just fine. It won’t damage my ego in the least.
I am, of course, just kidding. Even at the time I first heard that quote, it sounded pretty outrageous to me. But it does capture the spirit of our times, doesn’t it. According to the essential human doctrine of modern society, we are autonomous individuals who have no need to depend on anyone or anything besides our own, personal inner resources.
Now, in sharp contrast to this kind of thinking, Robinson talks about the very different understanding of people that has always been at the heart of our faith. This is how he put it…
The Christian faith operates from a quite different set of convictions about human nature. We are not autonomous individuals; we belong to God and are dependent on God. There is an “Other,” a power and reality beyond us, upon whom we may rely, in whom we can trust, and to whom we are accountable. Moreover, the gap between the goodness of God and troubledness of the world means that the self needs to be formed and reformed in order to flourish. Where modern culture has taught that it is enough to follow our own lights, Christianity has claimed that we are in need of formation and reformation of the self in order to conquer ourselves and oppose those aspects of culture that deform us.… We are not good by nature and corrupted by society, as modernity has maintained. We are flawed from the start and in need of formation and re-formation.
We are flawed from the start. How do you respond to that? The traditional language that has been handed down to us in the church is that we are “born in sin.” Most of us these days react pretty negatively to that language, don’t we. We’ve just been singing one of our old hymns, Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me. You might have noticed that some of the language of that hymn is pretty challenging to the way we tend to think about ourselves. On the other hand, the hymn does express a deep humility that is pretty uncommon these days. No, we don’t like the idea of being “sinners.” We mostly reject the notion of anything like an eternal hell from which we need to be saved.
I do sympathize with that feeling. I really do. But the fact is, as much as it’s understandable we might want to get away from the idea of being “flawed from the start,” the more modern idea that we are essentially good, complete and autonomous within ourselves has a dark side all its own. The world can be a pretty overwhelming place, and if we are supposed to deal with it entirely out of our own inner resources, it can leave us feeling pretty inadequate. As much as we might like to think of ourselves as autonomous and capable, the idea that we should all be managing our own lives all by ourselves is daunting. I would even call it delusional.
With nothing but the best of intentions, we have taught people, we have taught our children, that they are full and complete in and of themselves. With nothing but the most innocent desire to shore up their self-esteem, we have given them permission to see others and pleasant but superfluous. It really shouldn’t surprise us then, that the result has been some very unintended consequences. There is clearly a connection between this teaching and the rampant narcissism we’re seeing these days. There is clearly a connection with the breakdown of community and our social institutions. We’ve grown to believe that we’re completely justified in getting all we can for ourselves by any means necessary and damn the consequences for everyone else. We might have a hard time seeing the connection between a philosophy of human nature that sees us as essentially good, and the not very gradual disintegration of our American society. But the truth is that connection is very definitely there to be made.
It sounds wonderful, this idea that we are essentially good. I much prefer to think of people that way. What could possibly be the harm in believing the best of people. And yet, when we take that philosophy to its logical extreme, what we end up with is a society full of people who both believe and behave like they are the center of the universe.
By contrast, the church has always taught that we are not complete within ourselves. It’s not that we are awful, horrible, despicable sinners. That teaching has been terribly abused. There’s no doubt about that. But the opposite extreme has its own problems. Not only does it blow our self-importance up beyond all reasonable limits, it also means that the whole world is on our own shoulders. It leads to an abiding sense of fear, because regardless of what we might think we believe, something in us is perfectly well aware that are not capable of taking on the whole world all by ourselves.
Think about it. In order for us to believe that we have any need for God, there has to be some incompleteness within us. In order for us to believe that we have any need for the salvation the church preaches, there has to be something about us that needs to be saved. If we don’t have that, if we buy into the notion that we are complete within ourselves and everyone else is superfluous, we have to wonder if the church has anything real to say to us at all, not to mention anything like a secure future. Some people seem to feel that the whole message of Jesus is, “Just be nice. Can’t we all just be nice.” The truth is, there’s a lot more to it than that.
We are not complete within ourselves. We need God. We need the community of God’s people. We need something outside of ourselves, not to tell us that we are horrible sinners, but to complete our incompleteness, and to catch us when we fall. We need to take refuge in a God that is greater than we are. And, just like the workers on the bridge, the knowledge that God’s net is always there to catch us is what makes it possible to do our best work, and to live our best lives. When we believe that no matter what happens, we can never fall out of the net of God’s grace and salvation, that’s when we most fully live up to the potential we’ve been given. That’s when we free ourselves from the anxiety that goes along with believing it is all up to us, all by our autonomous, self-sufficient, essentially good and complete selves. The truth is, we are not complete without God. God is our refuge, our strength, and yes, our salvation.
To put it in the words of a much loved and very familiar old hymn.
Did we in our own strength confide our striving would be losing.
Were not the right man on our side, the man of God’s own choosing.
Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus it is he;
Lord Sabaoth his name. From age to age the same
And he must win the battle.
(From: “A Mighty Fortress is our God”)