Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 12th October 2014
12 October 2014 at 11:00 am
The Reverend Professor Vernon White, Canon Theologian
One of the most unnerving attacks on religion, which has become more strident recently, is not the attack on religion's intellectual credentials: the charge that its claims about God are not true, not, credible, not rational. Those of us who believe in God have got used to confronting that charge. No - the more unnerving charge is not that religion is not true, but that it's not good. This used to be the high ground for Christianity - the moral high ground. But no longer. Religious faith is now regularly accused of failing even to be moral, let alone true.
Of course, moral critics of religion have always existed, from Socrates to Marx. But this sort of criticism has now gathered more popular momentum. This probably began some 100 years ago as the experiences of the 1WW took effect. A recent symposium for historians here at the Abbey made this clear: a major consequence of the war for religion was not so much that people lost faith (some lost it, others found it): no, the most significant effect was that faith and morality became uncoupled. Whereas, previously, it was widely assumed that goodness depended on religion, the raw experiences of the battlefield told another story: altruism, generosity, sacrifice, was often found in people of no faith; selfishness, small-mindedness, even savagery, was sometimes found in those with faith. So, the connection was severed. And the inevitable followed: if faith was no longer necessarily the guardian of goodness, it could itself be subject to moral scrutiny - and when it was it was often found wanting. So the critique gathered momentum; further fuelled now, of course, by the rise of religious fundamentalism, which is so clearly open to moral criticism.
How should we respond to this? I have no doubt we shall do it best with our lives, not by words and argument. Even so, we shouldn't completely dodge argument. We should at least try to address honestly, head-on, some of the moral ambiguities which really are there in our core texts and beliefs. Today's Gospel reading (Matt. 22: 1-14) offers one example. It would have been fine if it had just stayed with the picture of God as a generous host opening up his wedding feast to all. But it doesn't. There was also that disturbing undercurrent of violence in the story. This King, this host, loosely standing for God, is apparently ferocious, not only with murderers but also with some poor soul who simply turned up in the wrong ceremonial dress (is it any wonder, I sometimes think, that one of my recurring nightmares over 35 years of being ordained is being unable to get into my robes in time for a church service! - presumably I've been unconsciously terrorized by this text!). But more seriously - what sort of picture of God does this parable convey? A mean-minded, vindictive God, unreasonably concerned with trivia like a dress code?
Well of course not. Of course God is not like that! But perhaps, these days, we should explain why: i.e. why this misreads the parable. We need to know and explain that in the New Testament wedding garments are nothing to do with clothes. They are in fact a metaphor for righteousness: i.e. right relationship (with God and others). In other words, this guest hadn't turned up in the wrong dress but in entirely the wrong state of heart and mind: with the sort of arrogant self-centredness which pays no regard at all to others. So what the host is rejecting here isn't bad manners: it's a frame of mind in which it's impossible to have any kind of relationship with anyone. And by impossible I really mean impossible: a logical impossibility, like trying to make a square fit a round hole, rather than a psychological impossibility which could be overcome by just trying harder. So it's not that God cannot accept such a frame of mind into a right relationship just because he has run short of patience, acceptance or forgiveness - the invitation is always there, for all. No - it's an impossibility in the very structure of reality: this self-centred sort of frame of mind, by definition, just cannot fit into the shape of a real, reciprocal, fulfilling, relationship - it has to change for the fit to work - and that's why the guest has to be resisted and change - for his sake, as well as others; it's the only way he will ever be able to enjoy the feast.
In other words, far from depicting God's meanness, this is actually depicting His moral goodness. Not a shapeless, laissez-faire goodness of endless acquiescence - but then what wouldn't be real goodness - who would want a God, to borrow a novelist's famous phrase, of such 'unbearable lightness of being' that He just acquiesced in everything? No, what we have here is real solid goodness of the sort we know in real relationships where sometimes we have to resist each other for it to be real.
So - this is one sort of response to texts or beliefs which trouble us morally. Dig deeper; see what really underlies them; clear away unnecessary misconceptions.
Then, having cleared away these doubts, perhaps that will also leave us more able to do something else - which is simply to think more, to dwell more, on those other pictures and stories of God in our core texts and beliefs which are obviously, palpably, good: the immense self-giving sacrifice of Christ for us; His immeasurable generous hospitality to all; the incomparable hymn to love that St Paul offers in I Cor. 13; the shimmering ideals of the beatitudes. As our other reading bid us: think more on all these things, think on all that is obviously 'true, honourable, just, pure'.
For if we do, I suspect that we'll then find that what war, fundamentalism, life experience, may indeed have put asunder, will be joined together again. We'll see that faith and morality do belong together, at best, at the deepest level. This doesn't for a moment mean that religious people are, after all, better and more moral than those who are not. Far from it. But it does mean that any serious encounter with real goodness, whether in pictures of God or in human acts of generosity (believers or not), that encounter with goodness is an experience of something so solid, so real, so compelling, it inevitably hints at the eternal, the transcendent - something to do with God. As even some faithless philosophers sense: the sheer power and glory of real goodness just makes you wonder: where does it come from? Where does it go? They call it the 'faith of the faithless …'
'Whatever is true, honourable, just, pure' …think on these things … keep doing them … and the peace of God will be with you'.