Sunday 10th February – The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany – Evensong – Kenneth Boyd
ST JOHN, 4 before Lent EP: Matthew 7.1-14; 24-27
‘In your loving is your knowing’ is the title of a book that was published last week. It’s a collection of the previously unpublished writings of Elizabeth Templeton, the sorely missed Scottish theologian who died four years ago. Elizabeth thought and wrote with the precision of a born philosopher but also the imagination of a born poet. For her, theology was not a dry, abstract, intellectual exercise, but, as she put it, ‘a convivial, energising conversation, engaging every aspect of the self, and open to every partner from every quarter’. If theology’s conversation nowadays is to be about God, she argued, the voices ‘from every quarter’ who need to be heard in it, are not just those of accredited ecclesiastical or academic authorities, or even of faithful believers: they are also the voices of those for whom talk about God no longer seems to make any sense or have any relevance to their daily lives. For they too belong to the world which, as Elizabeth put it, God ‘loved into being and imagined into it men and women who might be free and know joy’.
Elizabeth’s idea of theology as a convivial conversation ‘open to every partner from every quarter’ is in some respects an impossible ideal, or at least one possible only in conversations which at some point or other always need for practical reasons to be broken off. Such conversations never achieve the full and firm conclusions which can be fitted together into the kind of doctrinal systems that many more traditional theologians have tried to construct. Despite, or perhaps because of this however, the fragmentary conversations reflected in Elizabeth’s writings, are often, as she herself puts it, ‘energising’ in ways that many weighty doctrinal systems fail to be. And the reason why they are energising, is not only because they are ‘convivial’, and ‘open to every partner from every quarter’, but also because, again in Elizabeth’s own words, they engage ‘every aspect of the self, not just ideas and the intellect.
Indeed it is by engaging ‘every aspect of the self’, that the title of Elizabeth’s book is so telling: ‘In your loving is your knowing’. ‘You cannot know’, Elizabeth writes, ‘what you do not love’. To love, means to care for, and to be willing to pay sustained attention to who and what you care for. This is as true for the projects we undertake in life as for the people we meet. You cannot really learn new knowledge or a new skill – at work or study or play – without caring enough to give sustained attention to learning it, without in some sense loving what you want to learn. Even less can we claim to really know another person, without being prepared to care for, and pay sustained attention to, what they allow us to learn of them. In this respect, much of what we think we know about other people is superficial at best.
And it is in questioning this superficiality, especially where it leads theologians to divide people up neatly into believers and unbelievers, that Elizabeth’s convivial conversations, ‘engaging every aspect of the self and open to every partner from every quarter’, are truly energising. For if it is true, as theologians say, that at his birth Christ brought heaven to earth, so at his ascension he went, not up, up, and far away, but out into all the earth, where his Spirit is silently at work in countless ways – ways we can learn to know only by learning to love, to pay sustained attention to those with and among whom his Spirit is already at work – and is at work even if they themselves have no explicit religious faith. There are artists and writers for example, Elizabeth suggests, whose faith in God the Creator is not explicit but implicit. Their ‘faith is somehow in the seeing, the doing, the making’.
But isn’t this now getting too far away from the historic Christian faith? I wonder. Elizabeth’s desire to make theological conversation ‘open to every partner from every quarter’ seems not all that unlike Jesus’ own engagement with people who were beyond the pale to the religious authorities of his own day – people with whom his conversations were indeed energising, because as tonight’s second Gospel reading concludes, ‘he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes’.
Our Gospel readings tonight, indeed, both from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, have something of the same fragmentariness, but also accessibility to all sorts and conditions of people, not just the overtly religious. What Jesus says about not judging that you may not be judged, for example, is not, I think, the grim warning it has sometimes been taken to be, against divine retribution, not least after death. But nor it the easy advice it could be taken to be, that because everything is relative, anything goes. There is good and bad, both in the world and in ourselves, and we need to be self-critically aware of that, as Jesus’ advice to take the plank out of our own eye reminds us. But with other people we need to be both more cautious and more generous, especially since our knowledge of them is, as I suggested earlier, often and perhaps usually, so superficial. There are actions of some people we do sometimes need to oppose, particularly when those actions threaten to harm others. But when we are tempted to criticise or condemn someone for something they have done, even for some hideous crime, we need not approve of what they have done, to be aware that there may have been reasons in their upbringing for example, that made it more difficult for them, than it would have been for us, to resist doing what they did. And again where others have succeeded in some small act of kindness or forbearance which might seem second nature to us, we may fail to understand what a real triumph that was for them to achieve.
The point Jesus is making here then is highly practical. Like the broad aim of the Jewish Law which he said he came to fulfil, the aim of Jesus’ teaching here is that his hearers should live flourishing and fruitful lives, in peace and friendship with their neighbours, with the strangers they meet and, he added elsewhere, even with those who appeared to be their enemies. Part of the persuasiveness of Jesus’ teaching indeed, is that it resembles so closely what other great teachers of humanity also have taught. When, later in tonight’s first Gospel reading, Jesus says ‘In everything do to others as you would have them do to you, for this is the law and the prophets’, he is only saying in his own way what his contemporary the Pharisee Hillel said in his way, and what for that matter was also taught by the ancient sages of China, the famous ‘Golden Rule’. Nor, in what Jesus goes on to say about entering by the narrow gate, is he offering radically different advice to what the philosophers of ancient Greece gave in their recommendation of what they called practical wisdom. When Jesus says, ‘the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and there are few that find it’, he is not recommending the restrictive ‘narrow-minded’ route that some of his more fearful would-be followers misunderstood him to be. What Jesus is saying rather, is that if you want to live by the Golden Rule of doing to others as you would have them do to you, you need to have your wits about you, and above all you need the sensitive, perceptive love that helps you to know what those others allow you to know of them. Again, to cultivate this love-rooted knowledge is what leads to life – enables people to live flourishing and fruitful lives, in peace and friendship with one other. But as Jesus adds, this goal is hard to achieve, and all-too-often, ‘there are few that find it’.
But finally perhaps, that very difficulty is the reason why Jesus reminds us, in our second Gospel reading, about the wisdom of hearing and acting on his words, as the rock that withstands all life’s storms. For in the end, however hard we may try, and fail, and try again to live by the teaching of his Sermon on the Mount, it is not in our own efforts but in the forgiveness, grace and encouraging love of God that faith must trust, faith in ‘God who loved a world into being and imagined into it men and women who might be free and know joy’.
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