The Reverend Professor Vernon White, Canon in Residence
From metaphysics and morals, biology and theology, there's a call to change. The very nature of reality and the nature of God incorporate change, and demand change in us too: we are born not just to be, but to become, change, develop. Provided we also remember this paradox: that healthy change can only happen on the bedrock of something unchanging. Something that does not first demand change: the bedrock of an unconditional love; the sort of love supremely shown in Christ which accepts us first as are we, not just because of what we might become.
That is a summary of the previous two weeks' sermons at this service. This morning I now want to dig deeper into this bedrock—try to understand better this paradox of a love which enables change by something unchanging. How does it work? Where do we find it best displayed?
We shall find it, I suggest, only if we are prepared to become more like the hedgehogs than the foxes of an ancient Greek poet's fable. Hedgehogs pursue one big overarching idea, rather than toying with many disparate things, as foxes do. Hedgehogs are rare in late modernity, where most people prefer dabbling in many things. But I think there are big things we need to learn, one of which is the key to understanding how this bedrock of love works. It is the disposition of faithfulness. That is, the capacity for sustained commitment over time. It is in commitment to the well-being of a person, institution, or set of relationships, over time, through a long narrative, that we shall find this unchanging bedrock of change that we're looking for.
It certainly isn't fashionable, to find meaning primarily in long-term commitments. We're more used to living for individual moments: we try to display the meaning of our life in single moments captured in perfect selfies; or display the meaning of our marriage through the single event of an outrageously lavish wedding ceremony; or claim our deep relationship with God just because of particular exquisite liturgical or artistic moments. But in fact the full meaning of anything worthwhile can only emerge through a long connected narrative, over time. Every parent, every partner, every public servant, surely knows this from experience. It's through time that commitment of love (to a person, community, or society) is best shown to be real and worthwhile—something demonstrated both by its unchanging staying power through time and (here's the paradox) by changing and adapting in order to remain committed through time. This is why time itself, which only came to be through the act of creation (as both Augustine and modern cosmology tell us), is one of God's greatest gift to us: it is only the passage of time which makes some of the most worthwhile things of life possible.
So this is the bedrock we need to grasp: the power through time of what French Catholic philosopher Gabriel Marcel has dubbed 'creative faithfulness'. And it is, of course, the big story of God himself. What else is Yahweh's covenant with Israel but the story of God's unchangingly committed love expressed through a creative faithfulness in which he adapts and changes with his people through the long narrative of their slavery and release, exile and return, diaspora and reunion? The story of Jesus Christ and his Spirit then shows this creative faithfulness of God not just with Israel but with all humanity too; shows how God in Christ took on even more radical changes in his own being in order to be even more effectively God faithfully with us all in our own narrative of birth through life to death, and beyond. Small wonder St Paul described this sort of creative, enduring, love explicitly as the big thing: the greatest gift of all 'without which we are nothing' (Paul at this point in his letter to Corinthians being very much the hedgehog!).
As I've already hinted, it's not going to be easy to believe this and live it out in a more fox-like culture: our pluralist, restless, consumerist culture which prefers the gratification of many single moments, runs scared of long stories, prefers to move quickly to new things, new relationships. We have indeed lost the art of long term faithfulness. But I really don't believe we've lost all sense of longing for it, or of its value. And where, by grace, we can recover it: in our friendships, partnerships, our allegiances of work, church, neighbourhood; we'll find it does have extraordinary healing power. It helps bind together ourselves and society. Where the pressure to live only for momentary, disconnected, experiences and relationships has left only stress and fragmentation, faithfulness can and does heal. We can surely all supply examples of this from our experience, both in wider society and closer to home.
Of course, as with any good thing, any big idea, it can be abused. Faithfulness must not, for example, be confused with blind loyalty. That is just a strategy to serve only those who benefit from the status quo, used to fossilize an institution with misplaced loyalties to outmoded practices, a dead weight to stop all change. Blind loyalty can also be used as moral blackmail to lock someone in a destructive relationship which serves only one party (women have suffered from this especially). But then the whole point is that this isn't at all the kind of faithfulness being displayed in this story of God and his people, which is precisely not a call to blind loyalty but to this paradox of an unchanging commitment of creative love in which willingness for mutual change is part of it, ensuring it is a liberating not imprisoning relationship.
From metaphysics to morals, biology to theology, there is this call to change and develop. But always remember its bedrock too, which only time can fully display. The bedrock of a creative faithfulness which will hold and guide all this change we're called to. We should hold our nerve about this bigger story. Though often neglected, faithfulness really is, I believe, the big story of Christian faith, mission, and ministry to offer the world.