Not far from the six villages in rural Wales where my first ministry unfolded, was a sleepy little place with a lovely Anglican parish church – and an astronomically high-church Rector, who managed the delicate trick of being crusty, quirky, deeply spiritual and very popular all at the same time – a real one-off. He did things his own way, and this included the conduct of the series of wary but respectful spats he had with one of his very low-church churchwardens.
Now, this chap, the churchwarden, was particularly irritated by the Rector’s habit of tossing into the Prayer Book services, in English and in Welsh, the odd Latin prayer. One Sunday morning, the churchwarden appeared grumpily at the door, and said “Didn’t understand a word of that third prayer…”
And the Rector shot back “I wasn’t talking to you!”
And he was quite right, on many levels. Certainly, God’s Latin is excellent. As is his Hebrew; A.B. Davidson, the Hebrew professor at New College, Edinburgh at the end of the nineteenth century is supposed to have started the first lecture to his all-male first-year class each year with the words “Gentlemen, this is the language that God spoke!”
But there is a more profound truth in the Rector’s retort, that calls us back to something very basic that we are apt to forget. Our worship is directed to God, not to us, and not to each other. “I wasn’t talking to you!” may be brusque, but it’s absolutely right. The Rector was praying. He was speaking to God. Worship is speaking and listening that is directed out beyond ourselves. It isn’t centred on us.
Sometimes, standing back and contemplating what the church does, and how it must look to people outside, is something we need to do – and the Rector was making his people do it.
The cultist disciples of Richard Dawkins like to poke fun at people of faith by referring to their “Invisible Friend,” or the “Sky Fairy” whom they allegedly talk to, and ask for things. That’s of a piece with their dodgy philosophy of postulating a sort of being – really a sort of souped-up human being – calling it “God”, and insisting that that’s what we believe in. Of course, it’s more than a little embarrassing when some cultist Christians, as arrogant as they are naïve, rise to the bait, and say “Yes, that really is what true Christians believe in – or should…” and the two groups set to, in a miserable parody of any real encounter between faith and reason.
I’ve never believed in the kind of God that Richard Dawkins says I believe in, just because I’m a Christian. St. Augustine never believed in any such God, neither did Thomas Aquinas. Dawkins’ followers insist that belief in God means belief in a certain being who allegedly exists, and allegedly does certain things in the world, and that if you can, by the use of reason, restrict, then reduce to zero, the number of things that God does in the world, then you can prove that God doesn’t exist. You can remove God as a component in the machine that is the universe. Like the great French scientist Laplace, two hundred years ago, telling Napoleon why his book contained no mention of God, their position is “I have no need of that hypothesis.”
Well, neither does theology, and that’s why it’s so irritating to have Christians who have no idea what the issues are saying that it does. And it’s embarrassing that people who hold forth like that, many of them under the influence of so-called conservative Christianity from America, insist that Dawkins is right about what we are supposed to believe, and about how infantile and incredible it is, and only wrong to say that this infantile, incredible God doesn’t exist, because not believing in an infantile incredible God is sin, and will get you to Hell.
Not long after Laplace, the great Danish philosopher Kierkegaard was saying that “God doesn’t exist; God is eternal.”
We exist, we time-buffeted, event-propelled human beings. The whole concept of God is vastly, terrifyingly bigger than that. Two thousand years ago, the Prologue to John’s Gospel was pointing us way beyond the infantile notion of a God who was a souped-up human being running round doing miraculous maintenance work on the universe. Three centuries later, the creed of Nicea and the Chalcedonian definition were moving towards a clear Christian understanding that you don’t look for God in the universe, when the universe exists in God. And Thomas Aquinas was saying just exactly that in the thirteenth century. In the fifteenth century, before Copernicus moved the sun from revolving round the earth and put it in the centre of the solar system, Nicholas of Cusa, Cardinal of the Church, philosopher, astronomer, jurist, all-round clever-clogs and Truly Maximum Dude, was turning his huge mind to thoughts of an infinite universe, resting its being in God.
“Sky Pixie?” “Invisible Friend?” I think not. They are insulting tinifications of God, but no worse than those awful, embarrassing Christian tinifications of God, which turn God into a grumpy bearded man with go-faster stripes. As the New Testament translator and popularizer J.B.Phillips said, “If you can picture God, your God is too small…” One extremely powerful strand in Christian thought is called the “apophatic way”. (Remember that “ap” is Welsh for “son of” – the equivalent of “Mac” (and that I’m an “ap” and you all know my father) – and remember “fat”; remember if you must that your minister’s name begins with “O” but try not to put it all together when you recall “ap-o-phat-ic”…) The apophatic way is the way of thinking of God as ineffable, unspeakable. We can only speak of God by saying what God is not. One crucially important early Christian thinker, Tertullian, said “That which is infinite is known only to itself. This it is which gives some notion of God, while yet beyond all our conceptions—our very incapacity of fully grasping Him affords us the idea of what He really is. He is presented to our minds in His transcendent greatness, as at once known and unknown.” So when people of a Dawkinsite mind claim that Christians only say such things to get away from their devastating, enlightened, hypermodern arguments, they flatter themselves. Christians were saying such things two millennia ago, when they were only thinking about God and truth, and not at all about how magnificent Richard Dawkins is.
So, we can’t say anything about God. But we must say somethng. As the Church in the World, we must say something… I must say something, because I’m the Minister, and part of what I’m paid for is to say something about God. Ten minutes of silence at this point in the service would be totally unacceptable. (Or perhaps I misjudge my audience. Perhaps you’d quite like that! Eventually, though, the Presbytery would get cross with me…) . We have to say some positive things about God. So we have cataphatic theology (Think of a fat cat – maybe Bagpuss, rather than anything more political to do with the origins of the Credit Crunch!) Apophatic theology, and cataphatic theology. God is unutterable, ineffable, un-humanly-speakable. Yet we have to say something… And there are some things we can say…
So. John chapter 10. The Good Shepherd. Well, not really, because the parable of the Good Shepherd is Jesus’ gigantic little story in Luke’s Gospel [Luke 15:1ff, and see Matthew 18:12ff.] about the man who doesn’t rest satisfied that ninety-nine of his sheep are safe. God’s like that. This is a crucial, cataphatic insight into God. God is grace, mercy, peace, love. But John chapter 10 is a different shepherd story: John, reflecting on what Jesus is to the Christian community. He’s the shepherd. And who they are to him. The flock. The flock who hear his voice. The flock who respond to him. The flock who find their identity, their safety, the meaning of their being in the shepherd.
But what is that security? It certainly isn’t exemption from the way the world is. That, of course, is what the Dawkinsites allege, and, far, far worse, what some Christians actually claim. Believe enough, and everything will turn out all right. And if things don’t turn out all right – you haven’t believed enough.
In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Marx, Feuerbach, Freud, the great atheist commentators on Christianity, all noted the consolation that religion is to its devotees. “Religion is the opium of the people” said Marx, famously, but people forget that in his sensitivity to the appalling plight of the poor in the modern world, Marx conceded that they needed something to take the pain away. And Marx also –like Freud – didn’t miss something important that sails by the incomparably tinier-minded Dawkins-cultists, that the people who live out their lives in the context of faith are the least-protected against reality. They know what it’s like. It isn’t that their faith insulates them, and stops them having to confront the daily reality of their lives, and live in it. It’s religion that lets them do that. It’s a particular way of living in the same world that everyone else lives in, not a series of special, miraculous exemptions from it.
But then, the central Christian tradition has never claimed anything else. I remember Leslie Crowther presenting Crackerjack, and lots of other things as well. I’d forgotten – but it all came flooding back when I looked at the Wikipedia article about him – that he’d been the face of the Stork Margarine adverts for years. And of course, we probably all remember that his career was ended by the severe debilitation following a car accident, in his beloved Rolls Royce, and his death four years later. What isn’t often recalled is that Crowther was a devout Christian. In a televised tribute to him, I recall someone reflecting on this, and saying “He never asked ‘Why me?’” Then the speaker corrected himself. “He did once say ‘Why me…?’ But then he paused, and said ‘Why not me…?”
Our faith is not that bad things won’t happen to us. Our faith is a believing in the midst of a world where bad things, sometimes very bad things, do happen. You can buy t-shirts which reflect, in more or less witty ways that “Bad Stuff Happens.” That, of course, isn’t the wording of most of these t-shirts; it’s actually a good deal more trenchant and plainspeaking than “Bad Stuff Happens.”
Our faith is not that bad things won’t happen to us. Our faith is a believing in the midst of a world where bad things, sometimes very bad things, do happen. But here’s something we often miss. John chapter 10, John’s exploration of the theme of Jesus as the shepherd of the flock, doesn’t promise that the wolf won’t come. The reading goes on beyond where the lectionary stopped it. Our faith is not about our exemption from peril and threat and real life. It is of the immersion of God in it.
I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hireling and not a shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees; and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hireling and cares nothing for the sheep. I am the good shepherd; I know my own and my own know me, as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep, that are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will heed my voice. So there shall be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life, that I may take it again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again; this charge I have received from my Father.
It isn’t that the wolf won’t come. It isn’t that Bad Stuff won’t happen. It’s that the Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep, and that as a result, the world is flooded with meaning. The stories of the Gospel – and the story of the Gospel itself – are what do this. The Gospel floods the world with meaning.
But it isn’t easy meaning. We still have to struggle with it. There are times when we can’t see it, can’t find it. There are times when we miss it, or get it wrong, or make up our own meaning, because reality really is too much. But the meaning we get from the Gospel is never like that. The meaning we get from the Gospel is the meaning we get from wrestling with faith in real life, you and I. There are times when we have to wait in the silence, to wait on this meaning because we can’t say it or speak it. That’s the heart of the apophatic way. And there are times when we have to say something – so we speak the truth as it is given to us to speak it.
But always we are the flock, who hear the shepherd’s voice. And whether we are speaking or listening, we are responding to his voice. And that’s who and what we are, the church. A French theologian once said “The Church articulates the presence of Christ to the world.” And this is what he meant. As iron filings on a sheet of paper are drawn into a pattern by the field of a magnet – and which of us at school didn’t get given a bar magnet, and a sheet of paper, and told to put the paper over the magnet and scatter iron filings on top of that? – like filings in a magnetic field, our lives are drawn into their pattern, their meaning, by Christ. The voice of the shepherd gives pattern and direction to the movements of the flock. The voice of Christ gives pattern and meaning to the life of the Church in the world. How we live as the Church in the World speaks Christ to the world. What we hear from him, we speak in the living of our lives. Or, as St Francis of Assisi is supposed to have said, “Preach the Gospel. Use words if necessary.”
NOTE: Here’s an interesting Christian take on the 2012 Presidential election in the US that plays around with some of the themes we’ve explored here: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/samrocha/2012/10/abstentionism-is-still-a-choice-the-power-of-negative-voting/ Discuss…