Give to God the Things of God

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And he said to them, “Whose image is this and whose inscription?” They said to him, “Caesar’s.” Jesus said to them: “The things of Caesar give back to Caesar, and the things of God to God.” And they were amazed at him.

Mark 12: 16-17

Today we hear one of the most familiar sayings of Jesus. Those who attempt to trap Jesus find themselves, in turn, challenged by his question to them. The challenge is one that continues and will always continue to ring true to believers, who are at once called to seek first the Kingdom of God as well as to be citizens of a secular state consisting of a population of persons holding varied beliefs.

In his reply to those Pharisees and Herodians who challenge him, Jesus points out that they already have committed themselves to “the things of Caesar.” What remains ambiguous is whether Jesus is affirming the “separation of Church and state,” or whether he is subsuming one’s responsibility to the state under one’s duty to God. In their commentary on Mark’s gospel, John R. Donohue, SJ and Daniel J. Harrington, SJ suggest that: “While Christianity does not mandate any particular social structure, no power of ‘Caesar’ takes precedence over love of God and neighbor.” (The Gospel of Mark, p. 348) Jesus draws his listeners and us into a depth of the question of the relation between Church and state that far exceeds any simplistic and, what Rowan Williams terms, merely instrumental response.

As believers and as citizens we should not and cannot escape wrestling with this issue. Currently in the United States we live in a time where this question is constantly coming to the fore. The great danger on both sides of the question, however, is that it is thought about and argued on the very ground of merely secular understanding. What is called faith and the “place” that Church leaders demand of faith in the public square tends to be the secular manifestations of faith: positions on particular issues of law and social structure, assertions of rights for certain types of behaviors and practices. We tend to look at this question somewhat as the Pharisees and Herodians. Do we claim and deserve tax exemption or not? Do we have the legal right to hire others based on supposed religious tenets or not? Should our institutions receive state aid or not?

While none of these questions are insignificant, they are not at the level at which Jesus takes up the question. He does not imply that our duty to God must have a place in public discourse, but rather that we must in every instance render everything to God. Typically, this does not provide a “how to?,” but issues a challenge to our entire perspective on life. The conflict between the duty to Caesar and faith in God often manifests as a conflict among different and competing beliefs. As differing beliefs lead to different social positions and behaviors, how is space created for each of these, and how do the different constituencies live harmoniously? This tension, however, arises to the degree that “faith” is being understood in its secular dimensions. Jesus seems to say that it is not a question of whether or not one pays the tax, but rather of the inner disposition of the one paying.

Since at the level of doctrines and practices the task of reconciling belief and participation in the affairs of state may seem impossible, it is necessary to deepen our view of what constitutes faith from the “secular” view to the contemplative one.

What is the nature of the participation in the secular sphere of the person who at each moment gives back to God the things of God? It is bringing to the civic conversation the reality of Mystery, of the duty of each human person to a truth and reality that is beyond the doctrines or ideologies of any one or group. It is to be a bearer of a Mystery which is one of love and responsibility to and for all. Most of all it is to be a living reminder that all we do, decide, and enact in our instrumentality is partial and temporary. Everything must be in service to that which we can never fully grasp or comprehend, to a truth that infinitely exceeds our feeble capacity to understand it. It is to be witnesses to the need always for awe of what transcends us and humility concerning our abilities to incarnate it. Thus, it is to witness at each turn for ways of being together that are increasingly reverent, respectful, and responsible, to the entire world and to a Mystery that we don’t even begin to fully comprehend.

I’m suggesting that secularism in its neat distillation is inseparable from functionalism; and if so it will generate a social practice that is dominated by instrumental or managerial considerations, since the perspectives that would allow you to evaluate outcomes in other terms are all confined to the private and particular sphere. In practice, of course, neat secularism is not to be found: evaluative discourse leaks out into the public sphere, sometimes in the moralizing rhetoric of political leaders, sometimes in the improvised rituals (of celebration or mourning or solidarity) that sporadically take over some part of the public territory and establish a certain claim to be common speech. But to understand this more fully, we need to follow through the implication of treating secular modernity and functionalism as belonging together; which is that one of secularism’s opposites is the resolve to regard the environment, human and non-human, as more than instrumental. And this is where I’d want to step back and reflect for a moment on what this means specifically in the life of the imagination, and how it works in the foundation of a general ethic. 

Two pertinent quotations. First T. S. Eliot, in Burnt Norton:

 …the unseen eyebeam crossed, for the roses 
Had the look of flowers that are looked at. 

And R. S. Thomas’ poem (from a 1972 collection), ‘Via Negativa’:

 …We look at people 
And places as though he had looked 
At them too; but miss the reflection.

 I want to suggest that the imaginative awareness evoked here is what secularism undermines; that the non-secular is, foundationally, a willingness to see things or other persons as the objects of another sensibility than my own, perhaps also another sensibility than our own, whoever ‘we’ are, even if the ‘we’ is humanity itself. The point is that what I am aware of, I am aware of as in significant dimensions not defined by my awareness. The point may be reinforced in a particularly acute way if I also include my own subjectivity as one of those objects of awareness that elude my possession.

  Rowan Williams, Faith in the Public Square

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