Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Clement's Gift

The church has always had a bit of a public relations problem: "Jesus said, 'Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me'" (from John 5:57-63). Accusations of cannibalism, while not the only criticisms levied against the followers of Jesus, were common in the first century or so of Christianity. Those who ate the bread and drank the wine in memory of Jesus' death and resurrection insisted that they did more than share a memorial meal. "This is the Body of Christ," they insisted, and we insist it still. Many years ago, as a friend knelt at the altar rail, I teased her before giving her the bread: "I didn't think vegans were supposed to eat flesh." Of course, it was a silly comment that conveyed no real confusion or concern, but I wonder... Without appealing to explanatory doctrines or attempting to define an undefinable mystery, how do we navigate that strange way of taking Jesus at his word without losing our grip on reality?

Who decides what passages of the Bible are read figuratively and which ones are literal truth? What great council of the church officially declared which verses are hyperbolic, which ones are parabolic, and which ones are to be taken straight from the page? I take it for granted that the truth in Jesus' words does not always depend on their factual accuracy, but who gives me permission to read the gospel that way? How do we know we're doing it right?

Clement of Alexandria lived in the second and third centuries, which is to say a long, long time ago. A well-educated philosopher, he became the head of the catechetical school in Alexandria and was Origen's teacher. His gift to the church of his day was to straddle the worlds of pagan intellectualism and the Christian faith, and he did so in a way that remains a gift to us today. Back then, many so-called Christians believed that the teachings of Jesus were too strange, too other-worldly, too intellectual for ordinary people. The knowledge (gnosis) of truth was revealed only to the select few who could comprehend it. Salvation was for those who were able to set aside the burdens of this life and this world in order to escape to the divine life. The knowledge (gnosis) was, therefore, a secret that not only should not be shared with everyone but could not be shared with them. But that wasn't God's vision for salvation, and, despite having some resonances in the teachings of Jesus, it wasn't indicative of his ministry.

It would have been easy for the Christian faith to become a primitive, anti-intellectual faith. "Just read what's on the page, and believe it with your heart, and you will be saved," one might imagine the Sunday-school teachers of the day saying. But Clement knew there was more to the way of Jesus. Bringing his philosophical education to his work, he encourage the leaders of the church to teach the saving knowledge and truth of Jesus that is salvation for the world not from the world. He opened the scriptures to allegorical and metaphorical interpretation that had somehow been lost between the rabbinical tradition of the apostles and the Greek influence of the growing church. He invited us to trust that the words of Jesus are true in ways that transcend our simple experience of this life yet that reflect powerful our embodied, created existence. He became a voice for Christianity that is still very much needed today.

There is nothing wrong with a simple faith. There is deep value in a literal reading of all of scripture. It can make a mess of lots of things, but it can be deeply formative to read Jesus' parables as real history. But we cannot stop there. If those who preach and teach the way of Jesus cannot leave behind the need for only literal biblical exegesis, the faith of the church fails to reflect the experience of the faithful. People turn away from the truth because it isn't true anymore. Yet the instinct to remove the way of Jesus from the way of humanity is an equally fruitless pursuit. The gospel cannot save us from the world because the world God made itself is good. Our brokennesses do not need forsaking but redeeming.

Clement invites us to heard the words of Jesus again through the voice of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit's guidance does not lead each of us to her own truth but leads all of us to God's truth, which, although everlasting, is not static. Being faithful to God means being faithful to scripture and faithful to the one who guides us as we read it. Clement knew that. May we know it and share it, too.

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