Final excerpt from my EP plenary address.

When the Church attempts to speak the truth of God—with words and with our lives—we are not talking to ourselves. In one way, of course, God is the proper audience for much of our speech—the words and work of liturgy; our prayers, both corporate and personal. In these speech-acts we respond to the Creator with the full range of feelings and dispositions that constitute our creatureliness. But, as a linguistic community, the Church also communicates to the wider world. It may do this well or poorly, but it is always saying something.

We’ve already visited some of the ways that the Church risks miscommunication by its uncritical adoption of other modes of discourse; this is an enduring challenge. The gospel is always spoken in particular times and places with all of the cultural and linguistic conventions that may obtain; discerning what is faithful speech (and practice) and what is not isn’t always easy.    

But in the “anxious middle” where the Word always meets us we’re reminded that the peculiar language of the gospel can only be recognized by participating in it. This insight comes from Herbert McCabe—a playful theologian if ever there was one—who points out that if you look from the outside at the new mode of communication that Jesus provides “it does not even look like a possible blueprint . . . it merely looks destructive.”[1] This, of course, is why Jesus was killed by the powers of his day: “The openness of love,” McCabe says, “becomes the vulnerability of the victim. If you love enough you will in the long run be killed.”[2] And because Jesus achieved his mission through failure, he is relevant not as past but as future, as God’s desired end that all of creation be fulfilled through him. 

So the Church “makes the presence of Christ articulate as a language, as an interpretation of the world.”[3]  “The resurrection,” says McCabe, “meant not just that a church was founded, it meant that the world was different: the church exists to articulate this difference, to show the world to itself.”[4] There are many ways to talk about what this might mean and McCabe goes on to suggest, convincingly, that it is the sacramental life of the Church that most fully reveals and realizes “the revolutionary future of the world.”[5]

But in my remaining moments I want to return to our discussion of Creation to briefly sketch out another possibility of what it might mean for the Church to “show the world to itself.” First, I take this so-called “showing” to be not an act of opposition or confrontation but of hospitality. In articulating the presence of Christ, in practicing word-care in its worship and witness, the Church loves and cares for the world.

One of the foundational truths that the creation stories in Genesis reveal is that to be human is to live within limits. God is limitless but we are not—we are not God. The “fall” that occurs in the garden in Genesis chapter three names the overreaching of our creaturely limits—our attempt to be godlike—and thus our sin lies in failing to claim and live into our creaturehood. Salvation consists, we might say, in our becoming fully human through the Word that took on our own flesh.

As I noted a moment ago in drawing on Berry’s work, limits are not limitations. But this is a truism that does not square with the project that is modernity in places like North America. Economists might talk about limitless growth or limitless wealth, but limitlessness is not an exclusively economic term. Rooted in one of modernity’s guiding principles—the maximization of personal freedom—limitlessness is considered a defining quality of our being human. Under this principle, “all are entitled to pursue without limit whatever they conceive as desirable—a license,” Berry says, “that classifies the most exalted Christian capitalist with the lowliest pornographer.”[6]

In recent months, we have witnessed in vivid, chilling detail what belief in the doctrine of limitlessness has wrought: Credit-default swaps and collateralized debt obligations—those mysterious financial “instruments” invented out of thin air for the purpose of generating limitless wealth for corporate executives and shareholders. A busted oil well gushing millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico because of the demand for cheap, limitless energy. (Calling the BP oil disaster a “leak” or a “spill” is one of many examples in our public discourse of how words are—without much protest—evacuated of their commonly-held meanings; truth sacrificed for the sake of spin).

Words about the BP catastrophe—explanations, defenses, diatribes, rants—have spewed forth as profusely as the uncontained oil itself. Political speeches have pandered to constituencies who want either more rigorous development of renewable energy sources or a return—sooner rather than later—to drilling for oil here, there and everywhere. But neither the right nor the left seems much interested in addressing the root problem: our need to be healed from “the disease of limitlessness.”[7]

How does the Church “show the world to itself” in such a time as this? First, we must acknowledge—contrary to what I said a moment a go—that we are talking as much to ourselves as to others on this one. It’s probably safe to assume that none of us in this room have been involved in naked short selling or in any of the other corruptions born of Wall Street’s limitless greed. But when it comes to the catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico, all of us are, as our friend Brian Volck wrote recently, “accessories to the crime.”[8] And it’s not just the cars we drive. It’s the petroleum that drives the American food system and the petroleum necessary to produce the cheap plastic we love—like the ubiquitous, petroleum-based water bottles we can’t seem to do without.

Yet even when we’re not quite sure how to extricate ourselves from our complicity in the destruction of seas and soil, riverbeds and mountaintops, we exist as members of one another and of Christ’s body, the Church, to make the presence of Christ articulate as an interpretation of the world, to express in words and deeds the difference that the God of Creation and Resurrection makes. 

The Logos became particular flesh, in a particular place, embodying the limitlessness of divine mercy and grace in the finitude of one earthly life. When Jesus says in John’s gospel, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10), we hear these words as a call to counter the “the economics of extinction”[9] with ways of living that speak to the fullness of life for all that God has spoken into being. The limits of a finite planet—there is not an inexhaustible supply of oil in the ground—are not hindrances to abundant living (contrary to consumer-capitalism’s working hypothesis). Rather, they are the conditions under which fullness of life for all is possible.

In this post-christendom world, there is no unity of witness that would make clear to the world what abundance within limits looks like. Instead, Christian communities large and small, here and there, in mostly modest ways, do the playful, joyful work of making this evident. They do it, say, in community gardens where on a limited plot of earth an abundance of riches comes forth—food and friendships. Or in intentional communities where limited resources, blessed and shared, become more than enough for all.   

With humility, Christ’s body speaks, with words and actions, that the world might know itself as the world. The limits we must live within—ecologically, economically, and otherwise—are the conditions in which we might have life, and have it abundantly. And in this we are able to affirm the truth of the priestly writer’s refrain: “God saw that it was good.”


[1] Herbert McCabe, Law, Love, and Language (London: Sheed and Ward, 1968), p. 130.

[2] McCabe, Law, Love, and Language, p. 133.

[3] McCabe, Law, Love, and Language, pp. 141-142.

[4] McCabe, Law, Love, and Language, p. 142.

[5] McCabe, Law, Love, and Language, p. 145.

[6] Berry, Faustian Economics (italics in original).

[7] Berry, Faustian Economics.  

[8] Brian Volck, “Oil Spill and God Talk, Part 2” in Image (June 25, 2010) http://imagejournal.org/page/blog/oil-spills-and-god-talk-part-2

[9] Wendell Berry, “The Burden of the Gospels” in The Way of Ignorance (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2006) http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=3248