The Reverend Professor Vernon White, Canon Theologian
'His grace is no longer called for before meals; farmed fish multiply without His intercession…Yet, we [still] confess to missing Him at times…
Miss Him during the civil wedding when, at the blossomy altar of the registrars' desk we wait in vain to be fed a line containing words like 'everlasting' and 'divine'.
Miss Him when the TV scientist explains the cosmos just through equations, leaving our planet to revolve on its axis aimlessly, a wheel skidding in snow.
Miss Him when we exclaim His name spontaneously in awe or anger as a woman in labour calls to her long-dead mother….'
Part of a poem by Dennis O'Driscoll ('Missing God'), describing the ambivalence of what many have called our disenchanted age. This age where there may still be rumours of angels, hints of eternity, memories of God. but an age which overall feels it has lost that faith, perhaps for ever. In spite of the temporary resurgence of ferocious fundamentalist faiths or the more subtle revival of general spiritualities, an age in which the default setting still seems to be an inexorable underlying trajectory away from God. Yet also, 'missing Him…'
I want to say something about living in this sort of disenchanted age. I want to dispel two myths about it.
The first is that this disenchantment and secularization is new, unique to modernity, a product of our progress in natural and human sciences - and, as such, we simply have to come to terms it as an inevitability; the myth that in past times everyone did live naturally in a more 'enchanted' world, a Garden of Eden where religious experience and belief was easy, whereas everyone now is bound to feel the absence of God because, like it or not, that absence is a truth we have discovered, through science and new experience: a truth we can now never with honesty deny.
This simply is not so. There is not and never has been this sort of trajectory. It is not the case that times past have always found it easier to experience and believe in God, and times present always find it harder. The absence of God has actually been felt in every age. As we heard from the Bible itself in the first reading, describing a time in the very early period in Israel when 'the word of the Lord was rare…visions were not widespread'. Or remember at the time of Christ, still long before modernity and secularism, all those parables about an absent figure: the parable of the trusty servant where the master goes absent; the girls with their lamps waiting for the absent bridegroom; the parable of the talents where the master leaves them to get on with life, and only returns after 'a long time'. All depicting a world where God was not obviously present. Equally, the presence of God has also been felt in every age, including our own. And not just in some declining private sphere. If we're prepared to look for it, we'll find it credibly and seriously alive in public life and discourse, from university common rooms and the corridors of power to pubs and media chat rooms. We'll also find that the notion that science has now provided an irrefutable reason to dismiss belief is certainly not the case. Any good philosophy of science will challenge that. Science does not and cannot ever replace faith because it offers an entirely different kind of explanation to it, not a rival to it.
In other words, far from one inexorable trajectory away from God, there has always been both an ebb and flow in faith. Yes, there are austere times for faith, much as for the economy. But they will not necessarily be for ever. We may miss Him. But He can and does return.
This was a common thread of all readings this morning. Against a background ebbing of faith in their time they all also described a new flow of faith. That time when 'the word of the Lord was rare' became the time when the Lord then called again to Samuel, and was heard again. That time of the Gospel reading, which was a time when Israel's faith generally was receding under Roman rule, became the time when Nathaniel's faith was renewed and transformed under the fig tree as he heard the promise of heaven opening again, renewed faith centred now on Jesus Himself. That time of the epistle, which was a time when the early church was reeling under persecution, became the time when the new visions of Revelation were given, again centred in Christ, the one able to keep bringing heaven to earth in any age.
So beware this myth that disenchantment is always inevitable and final.
But also, perhaps, we need to beware another myth too. The myth that in a time of disenchantment, all has somehow gone wrong, even temporarily; the myth that the faith we're missing would always be a better state for individuals or society.
This too is not so. For when we do seem to find God easily, by temperament or culture, we are of course not necessarily finding the true God - as some current fundamentalisms illustrate all too well. Whereas, those who do not seem to find God so easily may actually be much closer to the real God - who, after all, if S/He is truly God, must sometimes cloak Himself with mystery and seem absent, not least to leave us with some freedom and responsibility. Remember again of Jesus's parables about God's absence. They are not judging people for feeling him absent. They are simply describing how we must sometimes live with that sense of absence, and how we can live well and responsibly with that absence. That's why some secular societies, and people who find faith difficult, can sometimes actually be living more truly in the kingdom of God than some who call themselves religious. Many current events, including those recently in France, should make us realize this.
Miss Him? Yes. At times we do. But perhaps we need only ever miss Him, as Dennis O'Driscoll goes on, 'the way an uncoupled glider riding the evening thermals misses its tug'. Missing him not in despair but as an opportunity to learn new forms of the flight of faith, in that dizzy space he has left us. And always still sustained with hope that the tug can and will return for new flights, in some way