A sermon may move from idea to fulfillment
in various and sometimes strange ways. It may be useful as an
introduction to the theme of this sermon to say how that happened in the
writing of it.
In April of last
year I read a poem in the New Yorker magazine; the poet is Mr. Richard
Wilbur. What the poet was saying struck and stuck for several obvious
reasons. Beneath the quite clear apprehensions that float about just
under the surface of our minds there is a root apprehension that churns
deep down at the center. It is vague, but it is also relentless and
undismissable. And the poet's words interest this inarticulate anxiety,
stop it cold, give it a "local habitation and a name." The substance of
this anxiety is common to us all, and it is heavy. It is the peculiar
function of the poet sometimes to say out loud and with resonant clarity
what we all would wish to say had we the dark music and the language.
The substance is this: annihilating power is
in nervous and passionate hands. The stud is really there to incinerate
the earth-and the certainty that it will not be used is not there.
Nor have we anodyne to hush it up or power
to run away from it. We can go skiing with it, trot off to Bermuda with
it, push it down under accelerated occupation with the daily round, pour
bourbon over it, or say our prayers-each according to his tactic and
disposition. But is goes along, survives, talks back.
Not in abstract proposition or dramatic
warnings but in powerful, earthy images the poet makes his point. The
point is single, simple, and absolute: man's selfhood hangs upon the
persistence of the earth, her dear known and remembered factualness is
the matrix of the self.
come, as you soon must, to the streets of our city, / Mad-eyed from
stating the obvious, / Not proclaiming our fall but begging us / In
God's name to have self-pity,
us all word of the weapons, their force and range, / The long numbers
that rocket the mind; / Our slow, unreckoning hearts will be left
behind, / Unable to fear what is too strange.
Nor shall you scare us with talk of the
death of the race. / How should we dream of this place without us- / The
sun mere fire, the leaves untroubled about us, / A stone look one the
Speak of the world's
own change. Though we cannot conceive / Of an undreamt thing, we know to
our cost / How the dreamt cloud crumbles, the vines are blackened by
frost, / How the view alters. We could believe,
If you told us so, that the white-tailed
deer will slip / Into perfect shade, grown perfectly shy, / The lark
avoid the reaches of our eye, / The jack-pine loose its knuckled grip
On the cold ledge, and every torrent burn /
As Xanthus once, its gliding trout / Stunned in a twinkling. What should
we be without / The dolphin's arc, the dove's return,
These things in which we have seen ourselves
and spoken? / Ask us, prophet, how we shall call / Our natures forth
when that live tongue is all / Dispelled, that glass obscured or broken,
In which we have said the rose of our love
and the clean / Horse of our courage, in which beheld / The singing
locust of the soul unshelled, / And all we mean or wish to mean.
Ask us, ask us whether with the wordless
rose / Our hearts shall fail us; come demanding / Whether there shall be
lofty or long standing / When the bronze annals of the oak-tree close.
By sheer force of these lines my mind was
pushed back against the wall and forced to ask: is there anything in our
western religious tradition as diagnostically penetrating as that
problem, as salvatory as that predicament?
Out of these back-to-wall reflections I
therefore ask your attention to several statements that seem to me alone
deep and strong enough to make adequate sense. These statements have in
common this: they deal with the enjoyment of things and the uses of
things. And together they ad up to a proposition: delight is the basis
of right use.
The first statement
is the celebrated answer to the first question in the Westminster
catechism. No one will question the velocity with which this answer gets
to the point or that the point is worth getting at! The question is:
What is the chief end of man? The answer: To glorify God and enjoy him
The first verb, to
glorify, is not primarily intellectual. It does not concern itself with
the establishment of the existence of God, or with a description of his
nature. The verb is not aesthetic either. It is not concerned to declare
that God is good or beautiful, or propose that it is a fair thing to
worship God. Nor is it hortatory, that is, it does not beat us over the
head with admonitions about our duty to God.
The very "to glorify" is exclusively and
utterly religious! The verb comes from the substantive "glory": and that
term designates what God is and has and wills within himself; it
announces the priority, the ineffable majesty, the sovereign power and
freedom of the holy. Glory, that is to say, is what God is and does out
of himself; and when we use the term for what we do in response, that
response is given and engendered by his glory.
The priority-in-God, and the proper work of
this verb may be illustrated by its function in the sixth chapter of the
book of Isaiah. The young prophet, rich and eager in his expectations of
the new king, Uzziah, is stunned when the king dies. He goes into the
temple, and then comes the vision of the glory of whose ineffable power
the face of the king is but the reflection.
In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the
Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and his train filled the
temple. Above him stood the seraphim; each had six wings: with two he
covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he
flew. And one called to another and said:
"Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts: the
whole earth is full of his glory."
The glory is the light the holy give off. The earth is a theater of the
glory; it is rich with the ineffable glory because God, the holy one,
has made it.
The holy is a numinous
and absolute word. It is not contained within other categories; it is a
category. The holy both evokes and demands thought, but it is a
misunderstanding to assume that thoughts can contain the glory and the
holy. The holy certainly has the effect that Professor Rudolph Otto in
his great work, The Idea of the Holy, calls mysterium tremendum et
fascinosum-but there is an unseizable plus to the term that eludes
even the image-making genius of the Jews.
The holy invites prayer, but rejects such an
understanding of prayer as would make prayer a tool for working upon the
holy, a device for making the holy disposable by man. The holy demands
service, but no service adds up to a responding equivalent-just as in
our human love one serves the beloved but never affirms his service to
be the measure of love.
end of man is, then to glorify God, to let God be God, to understand and
accept his life in ways appropriate to the imperial, holy singularity of
God. The meaning of this has, to be sure, ethical, psychological, even
political implications. But the center is categorically religious.
But this statement about God and man, thus
elevated, tough, and absolute, is conjoined in the catechism with a
concluding phrase, "and enjoy him forever." The juxtaposition of
commands to glorify and to enjoy is on several grounds startling to our
generation. To enjoy is a strange thing, that is to say, to do about the
holy God before whom even the seraphim do hide their faces. This joining
of the holy, which is what God is, with joy, which designates what man
is to have and do in him-this juxtaposition, in that it is startling to
us, says a good deal about modern American understanding of the
Christian faith. How it has come about that we are startled by what our
fathers joined together without batting an eye is a matter we cannot now
go into, but only observe it and ask after its significance. For we may
have missed something. If the gravity of the glorification of the holy
and the blithe humaneness of "enjoy him forever" seem strange, our
churches in the very form of their buildings may be partly to blame.
There is the clean, shadowless, and antiseptic colonial, the monumental
melancholy of the Romanesque and Gothic adaptations-bereft of the color
and ornament which in other lands are so devoutly joined in these forms.
Our traditional churches affirm a heavy kind of solemnity that leaves us
indeed with a lugubrious holy, but defenseless and aghast before the joy
of, for instance, a Baroque church. Such a church is luxuriant,
joy-breathing, positively Mozartean in its vivacity-replete with rosy
angels tumbling in unabashed enjoyment among impossibly fleecy clouds
against an incredible blue heaven.
We shall not draw conclusions from that-only observe it and let it
hang-that the gravity of a life determined by God, lived to the glory of
God, is not necessarily incongruent with abounding joy. It is
interesting to recall that the most rollicking music old periwig Bach
ever wrote is not dedicated to the joy of tobacco (although he did that)
or coffee (and he praised that) or the inventiveness among his fellow
musicians, nor dedicated to the levity of the Count of Brandenburg, but
In Dir is Freude ("In Thee is Joy")!
The second statement is ascribed to Thomas
Aquinas, surely not the playful or superficial type. Thomas did not
affirm Christianity as a consolatory escape hatch, or an unguent to the
scratchy personality, or a morale builder to a threatened republic-all
contemporary malformations. But he did say, "It is of the heart of sin
that men use what they ought to enjoy, and enjoy what they ought to
use." Apart from the claim that it is sin that men to that, and apart
from the seriousness of the situation if that statement should turn out
to be true, is the statement reportorially so?
Yes, it is so, for all of us, and in many
ways. Thomas is simply condensing here the profound dialectic of use and
enjoyment that distorts and impoverishes life when it is not
acknowledged and obeyed. To use a thing is to make it instrumental to a
purpose, and some things are to be so used. To enjoy a thing is to
permit it to be what it is prior to and apart from any instrumental
assessment of it, and some things are to be so enjoyed.
I adduce a small example: it may bloom in
our minds into bigger ones. Wine is to be enjoyed; it is not to be used.
Wine is old in human history. It is a symbol of nature in her smiling
beneficence-"close bosom friend of the maturing sun." That is why it has
virtually everywhere and always been the accompaniment of celebrative
occasions, the sign of gladness of heart. It is to be enjoyed; it is not
to be used to evoke illusions of magnificence, or stiffen timidity with
the fleeting certainty that one is indeed a sterling lad. Where it is
enjoyed it adds grace to a truth; where it is used it induces and
anesthetizes a lie.
Psalm 104 how the Old Testament man who sought to glorify God and enjoy
him forever stood in the midst of nature. "He . . . gives wine to
gladden the heart of man, and oil to make his face shine." "This is the
day which the Lord has made;" he exults, "Let us rejoice and be glad in
it." Why? Not primarily for what he can turn the day's hours into, but
rather on the primal ground that there are days-unaccountable in their
gift-character, just there. And here he is-permeable by all he is
sensitive to: texture, light, form, and movement, the cattle on a
thousand hills. Thou sendest forth thy Spirit and they are! Let us
rejoice and be glad in it!
You God for most this amazing / day: for the leaping greenly spirits of
trees / and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything / which is
natural which is infinite which is yes
It is of the heart of sin that man uses what
he ought to enjoy. It is also, says Thomas, of the heart of sin that man
is content to enjoy what he ought to use. Charity, for instance. Charity
is the comprehensive term to designate how God regards man. That regard
is to be used by man for man. That is why our Lord moves always in his
speech from the source of joy, that man is loved by the holy, to the
theater of joy, that man must serve the need of the neighbor. "Lord,
where did we behold thee? I was in prison, hungry, cold, naked"-you
enjoyed a charity that God gives for use.
If the creation, including our fellow
creatures, is impiously used apart from a gracious primeval joy in it
the very richness of the creation becomes a judgment. This has a
cleansing and orderly meaning for everything in the world of nature,
from the sewage we dump into our streams to the cosmic sewage we dump
into the fallout.
Abuse is use
without grace; it is always a failure in the counterpoint of use and
enjoyment. When things are not used in ways determined by joy in the
things themselves, this violated potentiality of joy (timid as all
things holy, but relentless and blunt in its reprisals) withdraws and
leaves us, not perhaps with immediate positive damnations but with
something much worse-the wan, ghastly, negative damnations of use
without joy, stuff without grace, a busy, fabricating world with the
shine gone off, personal relations for the nature of which we have
invented the eloquent term, contact, staring without beholding, even
fornication without finding.
useful. But not if he is sought for use. Ivan, in The Brothers
Karamazov, saw that, and Dostoevski meant it as a witness to the holy
and joy-begetting God whom he saw turned into an ecclesiastical club to
frighten impoverished peasants with, when he had his character say, "I
deny God for God's sake!"
this has, I think, something to say to us as teachers and students to
whom this university is ever freshly available for enjoyment and use.
For consider this: the basis of discovery is curiosity, and what is
curiosity but the peculiar joy of the mind in its own given nature?
Sheer curiosity, without immediate anticipation of ends and uses, has
done most to envision new ends and fresh uses. But curiosity does this
in virtue of a strange counterpoint of use and enjoyment. Bacon declared
that "studies are for delight," the secular counterpart of "glorify God
and enjoy him forever." The Creator who is the fountain of joy, and the
creation which is the material of university study, are here brought
together in an ultimate way. It is significant that the university, the
institutional solidification of the fact that studies are for delight,
is an idea and a creation of a culture that once affirmed that men
should glorify God and enjoy him forever.
Use is blessed when enjoyment is honored.
Piety is deepest practicality, for it properly relates use and
enjoyment. And a world sacramentally received in joy is a world sanely
used. There is an economics of use only; it moves toward the destruction
of both use and joy. And there is a economics of joy; it moves toward
the intelligence of use and the enhancement of joy. That this vision
involves a radical new understanding of the clean and fruitful earth is
certainly so. But this vision, deeply religious in its genesis, is not
so very absurd now that natural damnation is in orbit, and man's
befouling of his ancient home has spread his death and dirt among the