On an educators’ listserv, a man from the UK made this interesting observation about our new American president’s inauguration: “Obama gave such a grown-up speech.” President Obama spoke to this concern himself, with a reference to the Bible, “Let us put aside childish things.” Yes, it is high time for us Americans to return to grown-up political conversation, without name-calling, sound bites, and cheap one-liners. We desperately need to rise above the Rovian “I’m rubber, you’re glue” foolishness of recent years in which politicians play games such as the verbal preemptive strike of accusing one’s opponent of one’s own flaws or repeating the same false accusation over and over until it sticks in the public mind. It’s time to grow up politically in the United States.
The biblical reference comes from the apostle Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, specifically from its famous “love chapter” thirteen. Although this chapter may sound like high sentiment to many, it comes rather as a high point in an angry letter to a church divided against itself. The Corinthian congregation has split itself into factions, each of which believes itself the right one, indeed righter than right can be.
Paul’s argument in what is now a chapter of his letter is simple but strong. All things human are partial, momentary, imperfect. By God’s standard of measurement, anything done without love is worth zero. No gift, no accomplishment, no virtue, not even martyrdom for the faith, has any value in God’s eyes if it lacks love. Everything in which human beings take pride is measured by God’s standard of (de-sentimentalized) love. So, while we do our best at what we do, we need to remember that it is only partial and temporary. It will all pass away, not just in time (as we know only too well), but “when the perfect comes.”
Shelley’s poem, “Ozymandias,” reminds us of a more common observation about human achievements and boasts, sic transit gloria mundi (thus passes the world’s glory), but Paul has something different, something more, to say. It is in the light of God’s perfection and so of that perfection toward which God has redirected our destiny that all our grand accomplishments are revealed as partial, momentary, and flawed. And, shockingly to Corinthians trained in Greek philosophical thought, God’s perfection is that of love. God knows no other kind.
The apostle names three exceptions to the passing away of all things human. They are not three things we human beings do or can do perfectly, but they are the three things that resonate so well with God that, even though flawed, they will not pass away with the coming of the perfect. The three are faith, hope, and love. We need to de-sentimentalize and toughen all three, but that’s another subject to ponder.
President Barack Obama’s scriptural reference in his inaugural speech seems to me more than just a Bible quote. There are too many parallels between the Corinthian situation and our own current American situation for me to dismiss his use of Paul’s letter as either mere political piety or just the grabbing of a one-line quote to borrow from a great and famous communication of the past. We too are a house divided, with our factions thinking themselves righter than right can be. We too need to look, however dimly, into the mirror and see that we remain a riddle to ourselves (the literal translation of what Paul has written about seeing in a glass darkly), and we need to know our truth is always partial, of the moment, and flawed. Then we can put aside childish things and juvenile arguments, and we can grow up.