Sermon at Matins on Sunday 21 June

21 June 2009 at 10:00 am

The Reverend Robert Reiss, Canon in Residence

I am using the three weeks in this month that I am preaching at Matins and one at the beginning of next month to look at a book of lectures published nearly fifty years ago by four then members of the Divinity Faculty at Cambridge entitled ‘Objections to Christian Belief’. I am doing so because I agree with the Guardian columnist Madeleine Bunting that some of the most interesting areas of theological discussion today are on the boundary of belief and unbelief, and that is precisely what the authors of that book were writing about.

The second lecture, delivered in 1963 on the subject of Psychological Objections, was given by Harry Williams, then Dean of Chapel at Trinity College. At the time he was just emerging from a period of serious psychological disturbance in his own life where he had been much helped by working with a psychoanalyst. This had resulted in a major reformulation of his own theological understanding, and the lecture was, therefore, a peculiarly personal statement.

His starting point was to say that he was not trying to criticise one orthodoxy, Christianity, by another orthodoxy, psychology, not least of all because it was very difficult to identify what ‘orthodoxy’ might mean in either case, both Christianity and psychology cover a wide variety of views. But he also said that human beings are not simply thinking machines, but are feeling beings as well, and much of what we might think is our opinion is as likely to reflect our more fundamental feeling processes as it is the logic of our rational thoughts. He quoted a Calvinist pastor who was also a Freudian analyst ‘Tell me what you find in the Bible and I will tell you what sort of man you are.’ Even conviction about what constitutes Biblical truth will be influenced by our personal make up.

He went on to tell his audience ‘of an inner conflict which has arisen between, on the one hand, what I once believed to be the essential elements of Christianity, and on the other, what I have discovered about the way I work as a human person, the subterranean forces and strategies of which I have become aware within.’ That inner conflict, he said, ‘centres round an apparently inexhaustible capacity to disguise the truth from myself, to believe sincerely I am doing one thing when in fact I am doing something quite different.’

What he thought he had been doing was following the demands of the Christian faith about how he should live his life, with a very strong sense of feeling guilty about various aspects of his personality, and therefore developing strategies for suppressing some of his wishes. And his main psychological objection to the form of Christianity he once believed was that it was an instrument of repression rather than an instrument of healing. It enforced self evasion, rather than self knowledge, when true healing, he believed, came from honestly facing the forces that were within, even those that ecclesiastical opinion might consider very unrespectable, and finding a way of incorporating that self-knowledge into a more mature and integrated personality.

He illustrated that with a particularly powerful story, where I strongly suspect he was talking about himself. He wrote as follows. ‘I know a man – he was a person of some academic intelligence – who was loyally practicing his religion as a devout and rather High- Church Anglican. One night he had a nightmare which proved to be a turning point in his life. In his dream he was sitting in a theatre watching a play. He turned round and looked behind him. At the back of the theatre there was a monster in human form who was savagely hypnotising the actors on the stage, reducing them to puppets. The spectacle of this harsh inhuman puppeteer exercising his hypnotic powers so that the people on the stage were completely under his spell and the slaves of his will – this spectacle was so terrifying that the man awoke trembling and in a cold sweat. After several months he gradually realised that the monster of the nightmare was the god he was really worshipping in spite of his having got a First in the Theological Tripos. And to this god he had to painfully die. He had to accept the terrible truth that the practice of his religion had been a desperate attempt to keep his eyes averted from the monster of his nightmare. He had thought that, with many failures, it is true, but according to his powers, he was responding to God’s love. His dream showed him that he was a devil’s slave – his devotion and his goodness being a compulsive response to a deeply embedded feeling of guilt, and this in spite of his regular use of sacramental confession.’

Now I suspect there are today many Christians who have absorbed the lesson given in that lecture; Harry Williams and those who take that view have had a huge influence on many people, and over the fifty years or so since that book was published ideas of God and approaches to guilt at least for some Christians have changed.  But it would be foolish not to acknowledge that there still remain some expressions of Christianity that seem far more to be instruments of repression than instruments of healing, and the monster God of that theatre is still a force in some people’s lives.

What I believe the lecture showed clearly is that there is such a thing as very unhealthy religion, but I believe it also pointed towards the possibility of a much healthier, life affirming approach to religion that can make it into an instrument of creativity rather than repression. Indeed I think it did for Harry Williams, who I got to know well as he was to become my tutor the year after he gave that lecture.

Where your and my religion might be on that spectrum from healthy to unhealthy is, I suppose, only for you and me, and those very close to us to judge. But in doing that we should never forget Harry’s opening warning, that human beings have an ‘inexhaustible capacity to disguise the truth from themselves.’

Next week I shall look at the lecture on Historical Objections.

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