Turning Toward the World, Part 6: Metanoia and Renewal

Turning Toward the World, Part 6: Metanoia and Renewal July 25, 2017



Photo by the Author
Photo by the Author

The best known title of Siddhartha Gautama is Buddha—the awakened one, but another title for Gautama is Tathagata, which means “one who has fully arrived.” A common image in Buddhism is that of “the other shore”—the shore of enlightenment. If we can just traverse the sometimes tempestuous waters of desire, sentimental attachments, and self-centeredness, we can arrive at this shore where peace, joy, and goodwill reign perpetually. And yet a Zen master will tell you: once you reach this shore, you realize you were on it all along!

We are already in a wonderful reality; we have only to see that we are and that we always have been.

Like kenosis, metanoia is one of those exotic terms in Christian theology that comes from Greek—the word signifies a genuine change of mind and heart—a conversion. And what is conversion? The word literally means “to turn around.” It brings two things to mind: one is a bumper sticker I see from time to time in Berkeley, California that reads, “Don’t believe everything you think.” And it’s funny because I wager many of us, when we see this bumper sticker, think to ourselves, “Exactly! Wouldn’t the world be a better place if people started questioning their own thoughts and judgments and perceptions!” But the sticker doesn’t say, “People shouldn’t believe everything they think,” rather, quite boldly, it says, “Don’t believe everything you think.” That means me. That means you. Perhaps Charles Dickens’ best known character, Ebenezer Scrooge comes to mind. It took a powerful, and in his case supernatural, experience to shake his mind to its foundations, to effect metanoia—in his case the experience, provided by the Ghost-of-Christmas-Yet-to-Come, of seeing the innocent child Tiny Tim die.

The spiritual turning that is metanoia can end tragically. We have only to look at the disciple Judas Iscariot and the apostle Paul of Tarsus to see how. Judas, in Matthew 27:3-5, realizes the implications of his betrayal of Jesus, publicly confesses what he’s done, and flings the silver pieces he was given for his treachery into the Temple of Jerusalem, but alas, his conversion was too late. The destruction, of himself and his former friend, had been done. Contrast this with St. Paul, who, after fiercely persecuting the earliest Christians, and even witnessing the martyrdom of St. Stephen, underwent an experience of metanoia—conversion—of such power that he would go on to almost singlehandedly spread the Faith across the Roman Empire and even die with St. Peter at the hands of Emperor Nero. For Judas, conversion—realization—came too late, and all was lost, but with Paul, conversion proved not the conclusion but the beginning of a project that would alter the future of civilization forever.

The challenges facing our country and the world are enormous. I believe any challenge can be met with and overcome with human ingenuity, but the great danger is either the lack of or the unwillingness to exercise foresight. Judas Iscariot did not exercise foresight and, even after the realization of the gravity of his mistake, he lost everything. There is a lesson in this for humankind today. We can hope that we go the way of Paul, whose conversion came not at the end but in the middle of his life; yes, the destruction he caused as persecutor of Christians was real, just as much of the destruction wrought by the human race presently is real, but he turned the situation into one of creation, building, and community. It’s too bad the message of the Book of Revelation is overshadowed by colorful images of the Four Horsemen and Beasts and Dragons. Perhaps the most meaningful single line in that book, found in chapter 21, reads, “The one who sat on the throne said, ‘Behold, I make all things new.’”

But isn’t this what we were invited to do all along: to renew ourselves? and in so doing, to renew the world?

Lately I’ve been thinking about Genesis 3:9. Adam and Eve have eaten of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and they are hiding in the Garden, and God asks, “Where are you?” It’s the first question God asks of a human being, and the question does not issue from a place of judgment or suspicion but from a place of a care and concern. The man is in danger of losing himself to apathy—the attitude that at its root essentially says, “The world doesn’t really matter. The future doesn’t really matter. I don’t really matter.”

But when a Deeper Voice asks each one of us, “Where are you?” the question conveys a definitive statement: “You do matter, and We need you to turn toward the world, to engage the world, to renew the world.”

Browse Our Archives