Stairway to Heaven

I’m not cross. I’m not really very angry or outraged. Except in the deeper places in my soul where I am allowed to smash things and vent my rage on ideas where it won’t matter very much. What is causing this wanton internal vandalism? I have been reading opinions, persuasive, eloquently phrased, but personal, hence demeaning and unnecessary. A friend posted on a well-known social networking site which of itself was quite inoffensive, but the threads where it led turned out to be bile-filled and in some cases, hateful, vituperative and misleading. The theme was, inevitably, interfaith dialogue. I have no problem with the concept, but its proponents all too frequently seek domination of ideas , a logic unassailable, an argument so slickly presented that the opposition can do nothing but curl up submissively and simply give in to its own intellectual extermination and replacement by something else more culturally and morally attuned to the frequencies of present-day life.
A bus full of Israeli tourists was blown up in Bulgaria. Lives were lost and various organizations blamed. This occurred because rhetoric and persuasion has a habit of snowballing into actions which are ultimately counterproductive, violent and destructive. Were this the only course open to us, would it not just be simpler to abandon all pretence at religious belief altogether, bowing down to the logic of the New Atheists, people like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, who aim is to inspire us all with the hope that all religions might soon join the dinosaurs in extinction?  At the other extreme, television preachers still fill our ears with their bombast, certain that the glory of their “true church” will never pass from the earth. I don’t know about that but I’m not convinced.

Most symbols celebrate success, Coca Cola, Nike, Microsoft. The evidence of the success of these enterprises dances in our consciousness; at the sound of their names, type face and colour fly instantly to mind. These symbols proclaim a message we are always hungry for, namely, that more is better. Every symbol that pleases us signifies that this thing has succeeded – has climbed over – superseded something else. More!  Larger, sweeter, higher, quieter, better! We seem, as it were, bound and determined, genetically and socially  programmed to struggle for the utmost – wherever that is. But however high things climb, two more conditions always hold. Firstly, something will always surpass our ‘more’ with its ‘more’ and secondly, eventually, it – or  we – will fall. Every great athlete will hang up his shoes, someone will come along who can run faster or jump higher. Windows will close. Promotions will cease and all these symbols will succumb. Is this awful? No, we just think it is, but it doesn’t follow that fading away is awful. The condition of endless rise and fall is just the way things are. Yet what we really wanted was heaven. Once, what could stop us? Not the skies, it seemed. We were Babel builders, heading higher, higher, running our race with all our strength, all our gift. There’s blessing in it, surely. But we could not have heaven by straining for it. Perfection eluded us, even deluded us. Is it real – heaven?

And yet, I do happen to think that there is one enduring symbol left. The power of the Cross can never be replaced by something else. Why? The symbol of the Cross represents apparent failure and extinction. It carries with it a pathway – a way to go whose path is never barred, whose pitch is not too steep, whose goal is never put behind. It is the path of giving by going lower. On this path, there is no end but God, for no matter how low another creature is or has fallen, you, or even I, by the grace of God, can choose to go down a step lower, to be sent down to serve. It is not that we always must, but that we always can. This is freedom. It is not life as we once knew it, but it is the stairway to heaven. It goes down, in the footsteps of the sent-down man.

How easy it is to say it. How very straightforward a choice. But, going out to find the seat at the low place; following the example that was set; ceasing to gasp and scrape to save our life and let go, is the hardest thing possible even as an infinite horizon for freedom and action opens before us.  Energy, intelligence, imagination and love will never exhaust the possibilities for refreshment if we can only discover a way to kneel for the other in perfecting humility. Down that road, following the sent-down man, is found the only country in which we are no longer bound and determined, the only land of the free. In other words, we cease making more of ourselves. In that act, we begin being made by God; being made human, a being made in the image of God, the sent-down man. Until heaven and earth pass away, the sent-down man and his Cross will never pass away, for the way of the Cross is the only road that has no end but God. This is the only common ground; the bedrock of interfaith dialogue is not found in lofty pinnacles of logic, but in the place of grace and service where our intrinsic humanness finds both a listening ear and a voice.

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