Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 24th February 2013
24 February 2013 at 11:00 am
The Reverend Professor Vernon White, Canon Theologian
'Midway in the journey of our life I came to myself, in a dark wood…’ So begins, with a quotation from Dante’s inferno, a book I was recently given by someone I hadn’t seen for nearly twenty years. When people give me books to read it’s either because they just want to share something good – or it’s to set me right about something. Either way, I’m interested. So I set about it. It turned out to be by a neuro-scientist who had spent his life researching the dark woods of brain and mind, lost his faith in God as a result, but also found himself. The book was simply called Consciousness [by Christof Koch]. I started reading it after a good meal and confess I lost consciousness at first. But eventually I became riveted. It proved to be a fascinating exploration of consciousness: our extraordinary capacity to perceive shape, colour, movement in things around us; the deeper mysteries of our memory, grief, language, love; our metaphysical sense of being able to make free choices, grasp logical truths, understand morality; our religious sense; our wonder at ‘the starry skies above and the moral law within’; our haunted sense of mortality. It explored the texture of all this as personal, subjective, experience, but also then tracked it objectively as events in the brain, intercellular synapses, the interactions in the circuitry of the sixteen billion components of the cerebral cortex. It showed how every aspect of our consciousness, even the most nuanced and profound experiences, can be mapped in these myriad physical events of the brain. And so, of course, I began to think the book would conclude that all these mysteries of our consciousness are nothing but physical events.
But no! The joy of the book was its surprise. It is not just reductionist. Yes, all this conscious experience is traceable in brain processes, but the author cannot deny that what the brain generates and displays like this is more than its physical origin. Consciousness is qualitatively different. It has a meaning of its own which is more than the brain, and which might even exist apart from the brain. He won’t call it the soul, and he never regains faith in a traditional God. But he still finds he cannot ignore this ‘transcendent’ meaning that is in our consciousness. And so his final words come from a psalm: ‘I still walk on uplands unbounded/and know that there is hope/for that which thou didst mould out of dust/to have consort with things eternal.’
Why have I recounted this? Partly to show that the rising interest in neuro-science is not something faith needs to be afraid of. Like all the other sciences, if faced fearlessly it can take us more deeply into faith, not away from it. But also because, with or without the discipline of science, it’s precisely by looking into the lived life of conscious human experience that God is most truly found. Faith isn’t found primarily in propositional statements about God, in teaching about God that a religious authority hands down: it’s best found in our own human experience. That is why Christian revelation focusses us so much on the story of a lived human life, Christ’s life in particular. Unlike the Koran which is primarily in the form of teachings, Christian scripture shows God most clearly in the story of a conscious human life.
I do not mean by this that the scriptures can give us direct access to the private inner consciousness of Jesus. That possibility was rightly discredited and dismissed in scholarship some time ago. But what we can see in the stories of Christ is the real effect of his consciousness displayed in his words and actions on people around him. And in that we do get a unique window onto God.
Two examples from today’s Gospel reading. The first was in that simple phrase ‘I must be on my way’. Jesus is recorded as saying this as he pursues his mission, even in the face of Herod’s threats: literally translated, ‘it is necessary for me to continue’; ‘it behoves me’. It’s a repeated phrase, a deeply woven-in theme of the whole Gospel. It reflects a profound sense of summons: there are things Jesus feels he must do. Sometimes it’s an austere demand: Chapter nine describes him having to ‘set his face like a flint’. Sometimes it’s a call he wants to follow: the pull of something, or someone, infinitely attractive: ‘I thank you Father for your gracious will’ he cries out elsewhere - then says to us: ‘you are blessed and happy when you hear this call.’
This sense of call is a signature of God. It’s found in conscience, a call which drives us. It’s also found in the beauty of holiness, the call of a goodness which attracts and invites us. It is that irreducible moral sense which courses through everyone’s consciousness, which is not just biological need, and not just a neurological event, but something more. ‘The woods are lovely, dark and deep, but I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep’ - ‘I must be on my way’: it is transcendent; a call from beyond. Even atheist philosopher Simon Critchley acknowledges the mystery of it: this sense of moral call, he says, has a ‘god-like quality’. Christ exemplified it supremely. He is the clear window to it. But we can all have it. And it is one way God meets us in the wonder of ordinary human consciousness.
The second example was in Jesus’s lament. Jesus saw Jerusalem rejecting him, and lamented. You can hear the pain in the repetition, ‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem’. You can feel the grief in the tenderness of the image: ‘how often have I desired to gather your children as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you would not’.
This too is a signature of God. Lament and loss only have such profound poignancy because there is great love at stake: a love we then saw in action as Jesus went on to actually die for and forgive even those who rejected him. And this too, great love, is an experience which you can track on the neurological map, trace in the sinuous crossroads of brain synapses, but which cannot be reduced to that. Anyone who has loved or been loved greatly (sometimes only fully apparent, sadly, at a time of loss and lament), anyone with this experience, knows this is not just an event of the brain but something transcendent: it has a different quality. It is another sign of God. Again, Christ exemplified it supremely. He is the clear window to it. But we can all have it. It is another way God meets us in ordinary human consciousness.
‘Midway in the journey of life, I came to myself’. .. Where? How? Right in the heart of our own experience: in the pull of the good, the beauty of holiness; in love and loss. That is where we truly come to ourselves – and to God, shown so uniquely in Christ.