Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 23rd September 2012
23 September 2012 at 10:00 am
The Reverend Professor Vernon White, Canon in Residence
Imagination, the theme of these September sermons at Matins, is an extraordinary gift of God. It’s part of what psychologist William James described as the ‘exuberant excess’ of our human capacities; it’s a capacity to see beneath the surface of things; to think of beyond our normal limits; to think what might be; to envisage better worlds. In the hands of a visionary like Blake, of whom I spoke previously, it is both a spur to social transformation and a gateway to seeing the mysteries of God himself.
But for all this potential, for all its creative insight, a suspicion may still lurk. How much really is insight, and how much is just invention? Does imagination really lead to truth, or is it just fantasy, wishful thinking? There is one writer buried here in the Abbey who can provide a sort of test case. His imagination is undoubted. But so too is his determination to see life truly, not just as he would like it to be; life not just in its glory, but also in its cruelty, its apparent godlessness.
Thomas Hardy was a late nineteenth-century novelist and early twentieth-century poet. He was brought up a Christian but his faith then mostly ebbed away. The intellectual pressures of Darwinism, the moral and social hypocrisies of the institutional church, and above all the sheer bloodiness of life, all contributed to this loss of faith. What remained, if anything, seemed only a nostalgic remnant of what he used to believe. One biographer described the trajectory of his life like this: ‘Losing faith in Christianity was like shedding a protective skin: intellectually necessary but also a melancholy process…Hardy [was] reluctant to let go of [the faith] that had absorbed so much of his imaginative life, yet…eager to join the ranks of the enlightened. He could no longer believe, but he still cherished the memory of belief’.
It’s a sympathetic way of describing what loss of faith can be like to an honest mind and heart. It may resonate with some here. And honesty is vital: we should not pretend. But I do want to take issue with one part of the analysis: the implication that Hardy’s imagination (or ours) only clings to faith by evading reality, and our intellect loses faith by facing reality: in other words, the implication that imagination and reason are opposed, and what imagination sees is always less truthful. Two weeks ago I showed how William Blake poured scorn on this sort of over-simplification. I now want to make a similar point with Hardy - by suggesting that his imagination, far from being an untruthful escape from real life, actually goes deeper into it: and what he then sees there is something which can lead to both doubt and faith.
Anyone who knows Hardy’s novels will certainly know how they can lead to doubt. They depict tragedy unflinchingly, and the full texture of human suffering this involves. He does this by setting the misfortunes of life in a narrative context in which his characters may begin with hope, but then become trapped by events beyond their control, so the hope is battered out of them. In this way he shows how so much human life is not just some particular present suffering, but also the underlying pain of loss: loss of happiness, meaning, hope, and faith. One of his great heroines, Tess, from the novel Tess of the d’Urbevilles is described as someone who used to find meaning and hope from ‘walking the lonely hills and dales’ - but as time goes on events strip this away, and the meaning she used to find is lost. In his bleakest novel, Jude the Obscure, another character Sue once imagined the world was all (I quote) ‘God’s wonderful melody’ - but when her children die in the cruellest of circumstances she too despairs: God is no longer good. Her partner Jude’s despair is even more radical: for him there is no God at all; life is all just ‘senseless circumstance’. Jude’s despair is also laced with anger against those who are so consumed with their own petty concerns that they fail to see this real state of the world. He had the Church in his sights here. In one celebrated scene the anguished Sue and Jude overhear an impassioned conversation between two clerics in an Oxford street. Sue assumes they are at least talking about something that matters. In fact they are engrossed just with a liturgical detail about the right position to take at the altar: ‘Good God!’ says Jude, ‘all creation groaning - and they’re talking about the eastward position.’ We could easily update this: ‘Good God! – all creation groaning and they are still talking about women bishops…’
This is a prophetic imagination at work. Hardy is exposing the reality of life and deploring those who choose not to see it, those whose faith is facile or trivial. And - unlike the faint-hearted Bishop of Wakefield who reportedly was so disgusted he threw his copy of the book on the fire - we need to take seriously what imagination is conveying here. We cannot sidestep what life is really like for so many people. But - this also makes me think: if imagination is clearly not an escape from reality here, should we not also take seriously what it yields elsewhere - those whispers of faith and hope which imagination also finds even in this apparently Godless world? For Hardy does show these too, however obliquely. One way is in the extraordinary reverence with which he treats his characters. His characters may be flawed and doomed but they matter to him, he makes the reader care deeply for them – and this poses a question which both his imagination and reason compel us to face just as surely as we are compelled to face the tragedies: where does that deep mattering come from? Where does our sense of the deep value of life come from? It cannot have come just from a random, godless, evolutionary process. And that is why we find the language of faith persists in Hardy’s characters, even when they think they’ve lost it entirely. So even Jude in his despair and unfaith quotes from 1 Corinthians: he still believes in the eternity of love. Eternity of love? Where does that come from if we are only transient accidents of this universe? God becomes inescapable after all. In his poetry, Hardy expresses this faltering voice of faith through nature: the thrush on New Year’s Eve singing a song of hope: kneeling oxen at Christmas: these are still believing on behalf of the narrator, when he cannot believe for himself.
Does this mean Hardy actually retained faith himself, after all? I don’t know. But I do know this. His imagination at least saw what authentic faith is, whether or not he himself espoused it. Like Job, the psalmists, like Jesus himself in Gethsemane - all of whom railed against the cruelty of events yet still found God inescapable - Hardy saw that real faith is often forged precisely within a difficult dark world, not by evading it. And imagination which leads to that sort of faith must be taken seriously. For it has led us to one of the deepest truths of the Gospel of Christ: the cross of Christ, where we see that God is present even when he most appears absent.