There would be a certain delicious cruelty in preaching only tonight on the last verse from our reading from Ecclesiastes: ‘youth and the dawn of life are vanity.’ There is enough to be gloomy about in fourth week of Michaelmas Term, and on the day that we have to admit it is nearly winter because the clocks have gone back, without dwelling upon intimations of mortality.
The words of the Preacher – the writer of Ecclesiastes – whose studied indifference to the vicissitudes of life, and refusal to be beguiled by novelty, fame or riches which might be summed up with the one word, whatever, do however give me a way in to this address. For the Preacher recognises mystery at the heart of existence. ‘As you do not know how the spirit comes to the bones in the womb of a woman with child,’ he writes, ‘so you do not know the work of God who makes everything.’ Creation and Creator, life and the author of life, are both mystery. And here – as in any theological use of the word, from the Old Testament or the New – mystery does not mean an inexplicable puzzle to be solved, a riddle to which we will one day know the answer: it means an unknowable certainty. A man may love his wife, and may know that he does with all his heart – yet try and explain that to somebody else, and the chances are that after a few moments, their eyes will glaze over with boredom. The love between two people may be utterly real; and yet it cannot be put easily into words, or represented as a scientific formula or algebraic equation. But it is no less true for that.
Some people cannot cope with the concept of mystery. Racing up the bestseller’s list at present, I’m sorry to say, is Dr Dawkins latest book, The God Delusion. Here, we find what can only be described as materialist fundamentalism: if a thing cannot be seen, touched, measured, proven according to physically observable criteria, then it cannot be true. Terry Eagleton – a Professor of Literature and literary theory, and by no means a blindly loyal son of the Church – describes Dawkins’ book in a notable article published just a week or so ago, as not only the work of an enraged atheist, but of a brisk, bloodless rationalist, a product of a certain kind of English middle class liberalism which generally finds its home in North Oxford. (As a resident of North Oxford myself, I’d like to assure Terry Eagleton that it ain’t necessarily so.) In opposing the God who is the superdaddy in the sky, the big boss above who acts arbitrarily and even capriciously in allowing suffering to exist in the world and not putting all to rights with the wave of a magic wand, Dawkins is forgetting the very first thing which the Church holds about God in her doctrine of Creation. God is not an item of the universe; God is the reason why there is a universe, why there is anything at all rather than simply non-existence. It is the freedom which God gives to creation – what has been called, God’s willingness to let creation create itself – that allows for the possibility of science (creation can be investigated, explored, understood more deeply and more thoroughly), and, indeed, scientists – even Dr Dawkins himself. Because God is not part of, but outside, creation, he is mystery: and we can never fully express the mystery of God.
Yet neither can we leave things at that. It is the Christian claim that God who is mystery has made himself known; initially, and in part, to his first chosen people, through a series of covenantal relationships; but then perfectly in Jesus Christ, who reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature; who is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; and who has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of God’s will. Not only – so Christians believe – do we see in Jesus Christ the fullness of the revelation of God; but we also find in him the fullness of the mystery of man. Think back to the words from Ecclesiastes, who wrote of the mystery of the conception of a new life. However much, however massively, our medical and biological knowledge has increased – and it has, in ways which in themselves, we surely glimpse more, not less, of the wonder of God’s creation – however much more scientifically advanced we are so that we can create the circumstances which make new life possible in a variety of ways which would have been unimaginable to the writers of the Hebrew Scriptures (or indeed the Christian Scriptures as well), yet there is still a mystery about human existence which Christianity understands like this. At the moment of our conception, God gives to each one of us, newly, separately, and uniquely, that part of us which most nearly reflects the divine likeness, and which is immortal: which we call, our soul. Created as both spirit and matter, it is God’s purpose for us, that we should live to know and to love God, who creates us in love, and to reflect back to him, perfectly, the image of his glory. And – so Christians claim – it is only in Jesus, only in the Incarnate Word who is both God and man, that human existence does indeed find perfection and fulfilment. It is for that reason that the Scriptures and the Tradition speak of Jesus as our great high priest: the one who alone is able to present humanity before the throne of grace, an acceptable sacrifice of thanksgiving, love and praise.
How can we share in the priesthood of Christ? How can we so unite our lives with his, that they too might be conformed to the divine purpose in creating mankind? In our second reading tonight, there is a rather extraordinary verse, in which Paul, writing to Timothy, urges him to share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. That verse may well strike us as odd, for two reasons. First, because the church has lost confidence in the notion of Christians as the battle-squadrons of Our Lord. Sabine Baring-Gould’s Christian Soldiers rarely march onwards as to war (though they still do in Pusey House Chapel). Secondly, the verse may disturb us because of its association of our discipleship with the suffering of Christ – an altogether too uncomfortable a notion for much Christianity, especially in the prosperous West today, although one which represents a theme which runs through the New Testament from Our Lord’s injunction to James and John that if they are to share his glory, they must drink from the cup of his suffering. I shall not pursue that theme further this evening.
However, I do want to end by saying something about one way in which we can – indeed, as Christians, must – seek to unite our lives ever more closely with that of Christ, and one for which the image of a soldier is not unhelpful. I mean, prayer. Christian spiritual tradition has long understood prayer to involve a struggle – a battle; and as the great masters (and mistresses) of prayer down the ages have shown us in their writings, that battle grows more intense, the nearer one draws to God: sanctity, so Christian history would suggest, seldom brings serenity, in this world at any rate. The battle of prayer can be with ourselves. We can become distracted, our attention taken easily away from God, and directed towards – and this can be uncomfortably revealing – what we are really attached to, what really matters to us: and when this happens, it can be a wake-up call to look again at what is actually motivating, controlling and absorbing us. We can become despondent when prayer does not appear to be answered in the way that we think it ought to be. We can become prone to – here’s a technical term for you – accidie; spiritual torpor, sloth and laziness, which quickly becomes our habit of body and mind, when all we want to do is stay in bed, or drink another pint, or watch daytime TV (does it sound familiar?). Or the battle can be with our environment – with the many material things, the goods, the images, with which our world bombards us, which can bury our true selves, our best selves, and so erect a barrier between us and God. Or the battle can be with Satan, the Accuser (and whether he is real as you or I are real seems to me to be quite beside the point) – the one who so confronts us with our own faults and failings, our own sins, that we feel so low and wretched that prayer becomes impossible.
On each of these fronts, there will be a battle in our attempt to pray, in our struggle, as St Teresa put it, to ‘take time frequently to be alone with him who we know loves us.’ Yet we must never lose heart; for we are not alone. We are just now coming into the wonderful season of All Saints-tide, when we celebrate that great cloud of witnesses who have been – each one of them – where we are, and now encourage us by their prayers, offered in the nearer presence of God, to follow along the trail which they have blazed, God’s purpose in the creation of mankind made perfect in them as it can be in each of us. We never pray alone: but always in the communion and fellowship of all who have run the race – who have fought the fight – before us: and who now rejoice in the presence of the unveiled mystery of God, the source and origin of all things, all things ending and perfection.
Rev’d Jonathan Baker, Principal of Pusey House
29th October 2006