Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Let us now praise famous men

On the Sunday after Hallowe'en, when I got to church I was surprised to find out that I wasn't reading the passage that I thought I was going to read. I had used the old Lectionary to prepare, forgetting that the new edition had been revised to recognize All Saints Day and All Souls Day and thus the designated readings had been changed. So instead of Isaiah 1 and "your hands are full of blood", I read the tamer and elegaic "Let us now sing the praises of famous men" passage from Ecclesiasticus 44.

Instead of the message of "More Woe" which I had expected to project convincingly for them, the congregation heard an evocation of community -- a hymn in honor of our notable ancestors.

Granted, only men were mentioned, and they weren't "common men", but at least they were diverse. The word was that all of them, from the rulers of kingdoms who had made a name for their valor, down to those whose names have been forgotten, had been apportioned "great glory" by the Lord. Even those whose names and lives, and children's names and lives, have been forgotten are not forgotten. Their righteous deeds and their name live on "generation after generation".

I take this as a celebration of continuity and community. And I take some pleasure in noting that in the list of types of famous men, with its implicit hierarchy, the rich men were last. Composers of music and poets came before them. Rulers led the list, followed by intelligent counselors to the rulers, then prophets, then wise instructors of the people, and then the musicians and writers of verses, and only then the rich, "living peacefully in their homes". We should, perhaps, be concerned that our rich, in our day, have moved up too high on our current list of famous (and powerful) men. Would that they would stay more peacefully in their homes.

It's significant that this eulogy comes after a long hymn (the second half of chapter 42 through the end of chapter 43) that praises the Natural World, Sun, Moon, Stars, Rainbow, and other Marvels. And it comes before a very long series of praises to the great names beginning with Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses and ranging through the great kings and prophets (with brief condemnations of a couple of bad kings along the way).

Thus, the hymn to the unnamed famous men of Ecclesiasticus 44 fits into an even grander sequence of hymns, revealing continuities and an evolving community. The really big-name famous, like Moses, are rooted in this more ordinary community of honored ancestors, a community that goes way back in time and geography and will go way forward in both. And this more ordinary human community is in turn rooted in the natural, material world and universe.

Our praise of famous men here in Ecclesiasticus is in this way a part of a poetic expansion of the creation stories of Genesis. The larger set of hymns implies or prefigures a holistic view of creation and our place in it -- a view that sees everything as connected. Or perhaps as nested, each manifestation of reality sited within the next, from the cosmic down to the human. Linked. Or, as texts in the web, hyperlinked. Everything's connected. I like to think of this section of Ecclesiasticus as an early example of systems thinking, a foreshadowing of systems theory and the study of interconnectedness in all realms of nature.

Connectedness is essential. But community, under the great stress of impersonal economic and political forces, is ever harder to find, create, or sustain. Many cliches are on target: it does take a village; we are standing on the shoulders of giants, even unknown ones. And even those who appear to be the giants of the ages are standing on the shoulders of others. And all stand on the shifting structures of natural systems. Unfortunately, the village, the "human pyramid" of standers-on-shoulders, and our natural life-support systems are all in danger of disconnecting on a grand scale.

Our resources for building up good connections are small in comparison to the resources devoted to destruction. There is, however, a large place where the Bible and humanism, where anthropology and ecology, and dissidence of many kinds, all meet. I see that place as a staging area for movements of resistance and justice, raising hopes for community and peace.

Whatever commitments move people to that staging area are to be applauded and nurtured. Finding and keeping their connectedness, and developing it further will not be easy. Doctrines that would restrict access to the staging area will always abound, be they religious or secular in their assertions of various orthodoxies. Splits and diverging movements will always arise. The way is definitely difficult -- and narrow.

So, in the immortal words of a character who led a football cheer in Walt Kelly's ancient comic strip, Pogo, "fight on, chartreuse and plaid!" That should rally us.

No? Then let's try "blessed are the peacemakers."

No comments: