Turning Things Upside-Down


One of my favorite lines in theater (and I really don’t pretend to know that many) is from Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia,” set in 1809.  The characters are discussing a new thing, algorithms, and how one day there would be machines that could ingest them and spew forth calculations that you could see on a screen.  Valentine, who is discoursing on this, exclaims with joy:  “The future is disorder. A door like this has cracked open five or six times since we got up on our hind legs. It’s the best possible time to be alive, when almost everything you thought you knew is wrong.”

Jesus must have been like Valentine—exuberant in seeing what was possible: a world where the accepted, supposedly ontologically-anchored verities of life were to be upended and turned upside-down: the powerful over the weak, the rich over the poor, the healthy over the sick, the nation over the refugee, men over women.  This, he said, shall not be the case among you. The first shall be last, and the last first. There shall no longer be any lording it over anyone, no pulling rank; no preeminence of position. The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve.  And to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10).

This was not a matter of ideology; it was an insight into the fact that sin may rule the world, but that this was not the will of the Father. Rather than a reign of sin, Jesus imagined a reign of grace, what he called the “kingdom.” Rather than feeling freed by this vision, though, we are told that the disciples were afraid. Of course, they feared for his life. But at a deeper level, they were afraid to embrace where Jesus’s new way of seeing things would lead.

This vision of Jesus was fueled by the power of the Resurrection, the creative love of God which had wrought the universe in the first place—a universe that had been rent awry by the mystery of the Fall, the result of which was a disordering of everything that God had originally intended.  As Genesis would have it, the power disorders in our world are the result of Adam’s sin, not something the Creator originally intended.  Jesus gave his life to “ransom” people from the various imprisonments of sin’s reign, to free people from the disordered ways of life, the distortions of power, that humans had built on the foundations of sin (Mark 10).

Sadly, our own Christian tradition has sometimes lost sight of this fundamental insight.  This is why it is so difficult for some of us to hear, as we did today from Rome, an unimaginative reiteration of recent church teaching prohibiting the ordination of women.  Perhaps it is a fear like that of the disciples—a fear of the end of what we think to be ontologically-anchored forever.  Of course, such Roman pronouncements could be part of a long-range strategy regarding other matters, such as the re-introduction of women deacons.  We might hope so.  But would it not be better if, on some matters, the officers of the church were to keep a reverent silence, and assume a posture of not-knowing what God has in store?  I know that there are many real pressures on them from very conservative people to do otherwise.

But still.  Would it not be better if we all could assume the humility to which Jesus calls his disciples, and that we help move one another toward his dream of the kingdom—where what we think we know to be true turns out to be wrong?    The Gospel leads us to this kind of humble questioning about many things.  Why, then, are we afraid to go there?

3 thoughts on “Turning Things Upside-Down”

  1. An important connection to the gospel message. Not surprising, coming from you! Sadly, the officers in Rome vision the Kingdom as one where the gospel message is interpreted “for” Jesus rather than “with” Jesus. It’s challenging to remain true to Catholicism when news like “no” female ordination surfaces, making it all the more difficult to “hang on.” It is maddening, discouraging, frustrating; most of all, it is heartbreaking.

    Bev Fournier


    1. Yes, Bev. What is most heart-breaking is that wherever we hear things like this it comes off as a slamming door, a refusal to listen to the Spirit who seemingly engenders the same baptismally-based vocation in the hearts of women and well as men. What we sometimes do not consider is that this kind of language does violence to men as well as to women—it diminishes us all. The issue is not ordination per se; I don’t think it finally matters, as the real work of the church is being undertaken largely by lay people. But, especially when this prohibition gets walled-in by claims to infallibility, which is being equated here with what can never change, our hearts indeed do sink, for it rhetorically reinforces an ontological claim about a difference between the sexes that is no longer universally accepted. (It’s even beginning to crumble in Saudi Arabia!). It is also based on a dubious use of Scripture and knowledge of the intentions of Jesus. I wonder what it must be like, at the level of one’s conscience, actually to say these things. In the end, some remain Catholics despite this and other problematic official pronouncements because faith is lived on the ground, in our ongoing encounter with the living God in history, including the history of the church in her sinfulness. We are consoled by the Spirit of the living God, who, through Jesus, would help us imagine a reign of grace and freedom where the offensiveness of exclusionary doctrines would give way to a reconciliation and rejoicing in one another and in our common calling. We live in hope. Like our ancestors (Hebrews 11) we might not live to see the Promised Land, but we can imagine it from afar, and perhaps even see its horizon.


  2. My fleeting glimpses past the thin veil have convinced me that things like this were not the intention of God, not at all.
    I do think the enormous power of fear has a lot to do with what is happening, so my prayers are for some control of that fear.
    It probably will not happen in my time.
    So for my sons, I encourage them to find some “religion” somewhere, some how that gives them a deep spirituality that God intended.


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