Out of the corner of my eye

Editorial by Art Dewey
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From The Fourth R
Volume 30, Issue 3
May – June 2017
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It will come of no surprise to those who know me that I misplaced a multicolored scarf, twelve feet in length, and could not find it for some days. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I spied it hanging in the faculty lounge. I was relieved to have found it. But the fact that it was hung up so carefully caused me to wonder.

I had just addressed my Christian Writings class, prepping them for our initial advance into Paul. Already we had considered the imperial atmosphere in which the early Jesus followers moved and against which they pushed. I wanted to point out that Paul had experienced what today we would call a paradigm shift. To do so I noted that, before his breakthrough, Paul would have had a neuralgic reaction towards a crucified Jesus. Roman crucifixion rendered that peasant, as all other crucified victims, a nobody. Rome would liquidate the criminal, delivering the most shameful of deaths, damning even his memory. To take such a loser seriously, particularly at a meal where the God of Israel was invoked, would have been particularly offensive to this extraordinarily accomplished Pharisee. But Paul’s “prophetic experience” (that is the language he uses) threw another light on the lost one. Paul was surprised by God. The God of Israel did not give up on the one with no advantage. The God who remembered those enslaved in Egypt continued to amaze. This God did not simply do the unexpected; this God chose the one destined for oblivion.

That surprising sense of God drove Paul into unimagined territory. He continued to be amazed that the nations, those frowned upon by God’s people, picked up on his words. They caught the infectious scent of a God who does not give up on the lost.

There is a danger in interpreting ancient texts. Many of my colleagues enjoy the historical hunt and place their findings casually on a shelf, as if in formaldehyde. Interesting to observe but hardly touching one’s life. But what if we were to read the fragments of the traditions in a different way? What would happen if we did not keep the experience suggested at an arm’s length? What if the text in question threw light on the life we live right now together on this planet? I am not suggesting that we simply turn this material into some pious exhortation. Rather, I’m asking if this material could be the start of an experiment, sparking us to see what we often miss?

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What would happen then if we saw the world through the eyes of the God that surprised Paul? It doesn’t take a supercomputer. We don’t have to deny our humanity or don some superhero costume. But we do have to engage in an unusual way. We have to stop our spinning world and notice—not everything—but those overlooked, forgotten, the unimportant.

For example, what would we have seen in the Age of Reptiles? Would we have noticed the mammals, underfoot and in the shadows? Would we have noticed our ancestors? Or have you ever performed the following imaginative backtracking? Go back beyond your parents and grandparents (noting, indeed, how unexpected were their initial encounters), and continue back through each coupling generation. How was it that those unknown ancestors survived long enough to produce offspring, and those offspring survived to do the same? If you are alive today you are the focal point of those so many countless intersections of hope, desire, and sheer dumb luck.

If you don’t want to suffer whiplash from such a concatenating splash of ancestors, just take time to notice how much each of us is dependent upon the “kindness of strangers.” We probably did not notice the car that could have gone on green as we were barely making it through the intersection. Or the unknown blood donor that literally made a difference between life and death. How often can you recall staying up into the wee hours with a friend, spouse, or child, realizing that, the next day, no one would give a damn about your exhausted state? How many times have you been the better because someone extended herself without ever knowing the effect?

I got personal with my students that day. I recalled how I came home from the hospital two months premature. Unaware that the parish priest enjoined the good sisters to pray for my happy death, for those two months my mother fed me with an eye dropper every fifteen minutes. By Christmas I was a bouncing little Buddha.

Take some time with this experiment. Let yourself be surprised by what most would write off as inconsequential. Detect care in the smallest things. Even a scarf hung up in the hope someone would claim it sends a mute signal. The words of Dante’s final vision perhaps help knit these unexpected fragments together:

In its depth I saw gathered
By love in a single volume bound
The pages scattered though the universe.
Paradiso 33.85–87.

Photo of Arthur Dewey

Arthur J. Dewey (Th.D., Harvard University) is Professor of Theology at Xavier University in Cincinnati. A distinguished teacher, writer, translator and commentator, he is the author of Inventing the Passion: How the Death of Jesus was Remembered (forthcoming 2017) and co-author of The Complete Gospel Parallels (with Robert J. Miller, 2011) and The Authentic Letters of Paul (with Roy W. Hoover, Lane C. McGaughy, and Daryl D. Schmidt, 2010). Dewey’s poetry has appeared in Christian Century and his poetic perspective aired on the Saturday Morning Edition on Public Radio Station WVXU (91.7) in Cincinnati for more than a dozen years.

The Fourth R 30-2

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