Richard Hooker, whose Feast Day falls on November 3, was a central figure in the history of the Church as the issues of the Reformation deepened and were further sorted out. The Church had become polarized and the two sides – Protestant and Roman Catholic – were doing great harm to each other. The Roman Church had come to focus almost exclusively on the traditions of the Church. The Sacraments, the Liturgy, the wisdom and teaching of the Church leaders were seen as more important than the Holy Scriptures. Martin Luther and others had brought a zealous approach to the recovery of the Holy Scriptures and urged followers to leave off all but a singular focus on the Word as it is revealed in the Sacred Texts. A toxic sense of mistrust existed between the two poles and an either/or approach was adopted. Either one side or the other was right. Either one side or the other should win. Either one side or the other represented God.
Along comes Richard Hooker with a fresh breath of new insight. Perhaps, he began to speculate, the truth is not revealed in either one side or the other but in both sides together. Hooker begins to hone the Middle Way which led to the formation of our Episcopal approach. Hooker bought into the primacy of Holy Scripture as containing all things necessary for life and salvation. Hooker also bought into the Tradition of the Church which helped reveal the truth of Scripture in the administration of the Sacraments and in the wisdom revealed to our leaders of the past. Hooker also, and rather ingeniously, claimed the reality of our God-given ability to reason as yet another means of God’s inspiration and guidance. Scripture is God-inspired. Tradition is God-inspired. Reason is God-inspired. We need all three to help us understand God’s will. It’s not either/or. It is both/and.
Coincidentally the daily lectionary for November 3 this year has Jesus telling parables about the kingdom of heaven in Matthew 13:44-52. The kingdom, Jesus says, is like a treasure hidden in a field. It is also like a merchant in search of fine pearls. It is also like a net thrown into the sea hauling in all kinds of fish. The kingdom of heaven is like all of these things, and more Jesus will add later. It’s not like any one of these exclusively. It’s about all of them together, and more. It’s not either/or. It’s both/and.
When I get most bogged down in life, I feel like either I am right or you are right and I feel tremendous pressure to be right. When I feel right, I can’t see you as anything but wrong when I have this either/or approach to life. The either/or approach assumes there is one right way and we’ve got to stake claim to that one right way in order to be right ourselves. It’s frankly just a little too simplistic as a lifestyle.
I’m not sure I’ve ever been completely right about anything. Maybe I’ve never been completely wrong either. I think probably I’ve been closest to being completely wrong when I was so dead certain I was completely right, as it has pushed me into an arrogant and self-serving attitude. And it could be true that the closest I have ever been to being right is when I have been able to acknowledge that I just might be wrong. That sort of attitude brings a little humility with it. It’s not that either you or I am right. It’s more that we’re both right. It’s not just that either you or I am wrong. It’s more that we’re both wrong. Only God has all the answers. Truth isn’t something I can grab to bash you over the head. Truth is something that grabs me and guides me through the treacherous paths of daily living. Truth takes the attention off of either you or me and adjusts it higher.
The Middle Way is usually a good place to be when things are polarized. When I’m stuck at one pole or the other, about all I can do is stand my ground and try to convince others that I am in the right place. Funny how fragile that stance can be, so much so that I need the other side to be wrong in order for me to be right. When I’m more in the middle it’s easier for me to put myself in someone else’s place and hear what they believe. I’m also less threatening in that middle place because I’m a little closer than those at the other pole. The Middle Way is a more humble approach. It assumes that we’re all right and that we’re all wrong. It assumes we’re all together in that, even if we’re not together in anything else.
If your approach to things is a little too simplistic and you’re polarized in your relationships, hear the wisdom of Richard Hooker. It’s not either/or. It’s both/and. Christ himself stands in the middle of the religious leaders and the outcast sinners. He says that both are wrong, and both are right. Mainly he says that both are loved. For that message he is caught in the crossfire and is crucified. But as he is raised, he shows that God’s truth is not destroyed by our violence and hatred. God’s truth abideth still.
Put yourself in another’s place instead of trying so hard to change them. Let them be where they are. Acknowledge that they represent the kingdom of heaven too. None of us is completely right. Nor do we have to be. Christ comes to save us from that.
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.