Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 29th January 2012
29 January 2012 at 10:00 am
The Reverend Professor Vernon White, Canon in Residence
In one of his poems T S Eliot portrays the reverie of an old man reviewing his life. The old man paints his life as he would like to see himself, heroically: but it’s actually a life which is rather meagre. because it ends up just being about himself: self-satisfied and self-centred. It is dismissed scathingly by Eliot at the conclusion of the poem as a sterile end to a sad and sterile life: ‘thoughts of a dry brain in a dry season’. Contrast this with the life of another old man: Simeon, who blessed Jesus when he was brought as a young child to be presented in the Temple: an episode celebrated this coming week in the feast called ‘the presentation of Christ in the Temple’. When Simeon reflects on his life, the contrast with Eliot’s old man could not be greater. Simeon’s life of faith had helped him always look out fruitfully beyond himself: he was always looking for ‘the consolation of Israel’, not his own consolation; and when the child Jesus is put into his arms, his reverie was not shrivelled and self-centred but outward looking: ‘Now I can go in peace because at last I’ve seen a light to benefit all Israel, and all peoples’: the song known as the Nunc Dimitis.
What is it that helps us become one sort of person rather than the other? What makes us able to look back on life with satisfaction, and still look forward with purpose, rather than end up shrivelled, inward-looking? Throughout January I’ve been looking at various aspects of religious conversion, and much of it has had to do with exactly this change: from being self-absorbed to looking out beyond ourselves, to God and others. This morning I want to ask about the role of religion in this. Simeon had been nourished by his faith. So is it simply being religious that makes the difference?
Unfortunately it’s not that simple! Jesus himself often warned that religious observance can be a barrier to healthy spiritual life, not necessarily a gateway to it. Christianity was born in part out of a critique of some of the religion of his time. Yes, religion is a matrix for us to be changed, nourished, guided to a better fuller life - but only if the religion itself is right. Sometimes our religion itself needs to be changed, if God is to change us through it. I’m not suggesting Christianity needs major changes in its fundamental beliefs of historic doctrine and ethical norms - these may sometimes need re-imagining in new ways, but I do not believe they need radical overturning, and they are not what I’m referring to this morning. But I am referring to the accretions of religion, constructions of rules about behaviour and practice which may have come to seem important but which can also become alienating - and worse: the sort of things which can trap us in inward looking attitudes and practices by giving us comfort or self-satisfaction when we keep them, and by excluding others - and God.
The rituals of the faith of Jesus’ own time which actually brought him to be presented to the Temple are themselves worth considering. His mother was in fact following a rule about childbirth (Lev 12) which stated that a mother was ceremonially unclean for seven days after the birth of a son, and then had to remain at home for a further thirty-three days, and then had to offer a sacrifice to complete her cleansing. That in turn was part of a wider concept of a ritual uncleanness applying to all sorts of things, unclean foods, and for strict Jews, spittle, saliva, menstrual flow - all of which generated strict rules because their ritual uncleanness was held to be a spiritual contamination, comparable to serious moral failure. It was sincerely believed - but what on earth was it really all about? Why should it be so seriously wrong to leave the house after childbirth or swallow one’s own saliva? Separation, identity, hygiene? Perhaps. But whatever its original meaning, what it so easily becomes is simply an arbitrary system which discriminates against certain people, and helps enforce power over them. Over two centuries ago on his third voyage to the pacific Captain Cook encountered this dynamic amongst the Polynesian islanders and recorded in his diaries their word to describe it – ‘taboo’: that is, a mysterious religious power used to enforce rules about behaviour thought to be unclean or dangerous - but for reasons lost in the mists of time. Similar rules and attitudes can become accretions in all religions, including our own, and when they demean women or any other section of society, or when they simply preoccupy us at the expense of deeper truths, they are the sort of religion which has become a barrier not an aid to spiritual life.
Rules and customs in themselves are far from wrong. Nor is the mystery behind them in itself the barrier: mystery can mediate proper awe and respect for God and for others. In any case, we should never trample lightly over other people’s conscience about their traditions: as St Paul says to Corinthians and Romans, even though you may eat whatever is set before you, do not offend someone else’s conscience. Mutual respect for custom is vital, especially in our pluralist culture. But when such practices become ends in themselves - and especially when they become part of a power game of the religious to assert their own superiority and exclude others – then the religion has gone wrong. Dostoevsky’s great novel The Brothers Karamazov dramatizes the terrible effect of religion when it appeals too readily to the authority of holy mysteries to bolster its own position: far from mediating Christ, it prevents its leaders from actually acknowledging and worshipping the returning Christ.
All this is only repeating what Jesus himself so frequently warned. Remember, amongst many examples in the Gospels, the telling exchange with Pharisees and lawyers when they asked Jesus, menacingly, why his followers did not keep all the ancient traditions. Jesus’ response was robust. What really matters is not whether we ritually wash our hands or eat unclean food: after all, he said (in a flash of earthy, almost lavatorial humour), that just passes through the body and goes down the drain: what matters is the heart, the way we treat people. The real heart of the kingdom of God is not keeping religious rules to reinforce ourselves and exclude others: it is to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.
Religion is the crucible for wonderful changes: it is through religion that God can works his good alchemy on us and society and nourish the sort of good life that Simeon represents - and so the recent shrill attacks of some secularists on all religion are entirely out of order. But we do also need to heed the Reformers’ watchword – semper reformanda: i.e. religion itself always needs reforming. And our best guide to that is always Christ himself.