For good or for ill--and mostly for ill--religion and theology have become forms of technology. Religion can be construed as a technology in the sense that there are experts who dispense a form of knowledge offered for the consumption of an untrained public audience. This, I think, gets the practice of religion and theology badly, badly wrong. Perhaps in this phenomenon we might find a partial explanation for a growing generation of people who identify as spiritual and not religious. Religion and theology are for the experts; however, spirituality is immediate, personal: universal truths experienced and apprehended without the cost--or value--of particularity or enduring substance.
Religion as a form of technology also has its part to play in the recent wave of atheist heroes and their lucrative literary and cinema productions. Where would Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Bill Maher or George Carlin be if not for forms of religion puffed up by intellectual and political conquest? To be sure, we would be remiss if we discounted out of hand the way in which critics offer a tool for the Church to sharpen its mission and clarify the intelligibility of its wisdom. But anyone deeply convinced of the liberation promised by these critics of religion would do well to consider their limitation. While entertaining--and at points, enlightening--the best accomplishment of such attacks are ties that bind one to a greatly reduced version of the Church.
Evasive spirituality and withering religious critics miss what truly stands at the heart of the Christian religion: an intimate relationship between the God of the universe with each and every particular human being. Even when that much is acknowledged, the manifestation of the relationship is, without exception, dismissed and disregarded. For what emerges out of God's love for people and the love people return to God is a community attentive to human need and intent upon mutuality and human flourishing. Religion, at its best, shapes such a community. Theology develops the vocabulary to evolve, sustain and reflect upon the life and practices of these communities.
The bedrock of this vocabulary and these practices are the words of scripture. As much as the Bible is made into a site of contest and a supplier of cultural weapons, its richness exceeds these distortions. When its words are read by a community at prayer, the written text and human memory become intertwined. The words become something other than an object for sophisticated intellectual pursuit; the words become a tissue of human life. Their familiarity is a careworn history of interpretation, their meaning arising at the intersection of changing circumstances and eternal purpose.
After all, at the center of all Christian claims is the claim that the Word of God refers first of all to the human being Jesus and only by extension to a book.
There are certain prayers and fragments of scripture so familiar, so well-loved, that the preacher's task has less to do with sleuthing out meanings hidden from view and more to do with witnessing to the forms of life these texts have shaped. If such a list of fragments were to be curated, Psalm 23 would appear somewhere near the top. Preaching on this text is daunting and guaranteed disappointment if the preacher's goal is to say something original, to add some oblique comment to its history of interpretation.
So I want to turn away from what this text means, how it can be properly interpreted. I want to turn instead toward how this text interprets life, how its words provide us with reliable criteria by which to see that human experience discloses traces of God's presence.
Consider another human institution that has gotten upside down on the difference between technology and concern for the human individual. Consider the commodified, profit-driven environment of the modern healthcare facility. Despite the near-constant stream of nurses, doctors, chaplains and housekeepers, a hospital room can be one of the most technologically sound but isolating spaces created for human occupancy. To spend an extended period of time in them is to wonder if the treatment is worse than the illness. Sprawling campuses, crowded emergency rooms, 10th-floor medical rooms: all of them, monuments along the way through a valley of darkest shadow.
As the Episcopal chaplain to Emory University, I have the privilege to visit people whose medical needs bring them to Emory hospital. Often, these visits last a few minutes and the patient is discharged before I am able to return to the hospital floors--interactions that aren't terribly different from those afforded by the company on public transit.
Recently, however, I have become acquainted with an Episcopal priest who, because of a tricky medical condition and some deflating setbacks, has spent the last several months in a variety of Emory hospital rooms. He has become a mapmaker of sorts: a cartographer without the benefit of Google Earth or satellite views of the territory through which he is traveling. And like the lead character in the film Memento, his body bears the physical marks of events that daily remind him of where he has been, with no consolation of where he might be headed. And as he has walked through the darkest valley, making note of its uneven and unfriendly terrain, he has gained the knowledge to map its features. He drew this map even as he could not be sure where along the way still waters or a meal might refresh him.
My initial visits were born of responsibility, ordination vows and job description. Here was an Episcopalian at Emory Hospital and as the Episcopal chaplain to the university, it was my bailiwick to call upon this man and render a measure of pastoral care. The length and nature of our visits varied: conversations interspersed with silence and the unhappy alerts of medical equipment; prayer book words and crosses drawn on a forehead with holy oil; communion with bread and wine carried from a chapel altar to the rolling bedside table in a 10th-floor medical room.
When the Eucharist is celebrated under the special circumstances of a hospital room, it is usually accomplished with miniature or inelegant communion vessels arranged temporarily at the foot of the bed or on top of an insubstantially plastic rolling table. Yet more so than any soaring cathedral chancel, this sterile, isolating and human, all-too-human wilderness becomes the most splendid sanctuary. A place of still waters, restoration. A table prepared in the presence of the body's prevailing enemies. A table prepared in the valley of deep shadows. A cup filled with a small portion of blessed dessert wine becomes the cup that overflows with blessing, with consolation.
I walked into a hospital room with the intent to minister to another's needs. What I discovered is that in the company of another, our Lord ministered to us. Together, a mapmaker and a visitor found themselves sharing in the great heavenly banquet prepared for us before the foundation of the world, prepared as a meal of refreshment and restoration in an uncertain and inhospitable territory.
Perhaps I have imagined it all. I stand open to the accusation that I have drummed up the poetics of events remarkable only for their unremarkability. I stand open to that accusation and offer this fragment of a letter written by the one who was my company beside these still waters. He writes:
I have been privileged to serve God for over four decades as an ordained priest. Never could I have imagined having the roles reversed where I am being served by you who have been "priests" to me in my need and infirmity. The hundreds of cards, visits, assurances of prayer are "outward and visible signs of the inward and spiritual grace" we all share in the fellowship of Jesus Christ, the Church, the Body of our Redemption.
Here is a record of the mapmaker's journey. Here is the only and best purpose of religion: an expression of God's love for people and the community that emerges as people return that love to God.
Let us pray.
O God, whose Son Jesus is the Good Shepherd of your people, grant that when we hear his voice we may know him who calls us each by name and follow where he leads, through which you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns one God forever and ever. Amen.