Sunday 26th May 2019

ST JOHN 6th of Easter: Acts 16.6-5; Revelation 21.10, 22-27; 22.1-5

‘Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold; /Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world… ‘

In 1919, exactly a hundred years ago, the poet W B Yeats foresaw the gathering clouds of fascism and totalitarianism that were to engulf Europe in the 20th century. Using the Christian imagery of the Second Coming in his poem of that name, he asked prophetically:

‘And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, /Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?’

It was only a matter of time: in 1919, Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin were already preparing themselves to seize power. Over the last three years, Yeats’ poem has often been quoted and commented on – with reference to terrorism worldwide, and to the rise of extreme political and populist movements in the United States and Europe, including the United Kingdom. And among its most evocative lines, today as in the past, are Yeats’ words:

‘The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.’

How can people be so sure of their own political convictions, that in their ‘passionate intensity’ some of them today abuse and even threaten, on social media for example, others who differ from them? There are no doubt many socio-economic and individual psychological reasons for this, but at the root of it, I think, is the fact that politics is an art and not science. Scientists can be reasonably sure of their conclusions, for the time being at least, because they follow agreed rules on how to conduct their experiments, without selecting or manipulating the evidence to get the results they would like. But in politics there is no such scientific certainty: politics is the art not of demonstrating facts but of persuading people, and of persuading them that it is in their own interests to agree with what the politician proposes.  But then again, what is in one person’s or section of society’s interests is not necessarily in another’s. So what politicians claim is always open to doubt; and doubt on matters where our own interests are concerned is unsettling. So to silence this doubt, people are tempted to re-assert their political convictions ever more vehemently, like the proverbial Briton abroad speaking English more loudly. And it is this very attempt to silence unsettling doubt, it seems, that creates the ‘passionate intensity’, which leads at worst to abusive and even threating verbal or online violence, just as on the larger scale, silencing doubt characterised the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century.

But if ‘the worst are full of passionate intensity’, need ‘the best lack all conviction’? In politics, that need not be the case, if people have the necessary degree of humility about what politics can achieve as ‘the art of the possible’. In the current fevered state of political reporting, it is all too easy to overlook all those politicians, civil servants and people in local government who with quiet convictions, are steadily getting on with maintaining and repairing the fabric of our society – and who for that, deserve our support and encouragement.

Now it is sometimes suggested of course that politics cannot bear the weight of the ‘passionate intensity’ of conviction which properly belongs only to religion. But that is to misunderstand the nature of religious conviction. In the history of religion there is ample evidence of attempts to silence doubt by re-asserting religious claims ever more vehemently and violently. We see it today in the activities of the Taliban and Islamic State; but historically Christianity has known all too much of it – in the forced conversions of 16th century Spain for example, and in the activities both of the Catholic Inquisition and of Calvinist disciplinarians. Yet as the 8th century Northumbrian saint, Alcuin of York, was bold to tell Charlemagne, ‘You can force people to be baptised, but you cannot force them to believe…. Faith is a free act of the will, not a forced act. We must appeal to the conscience, not compel it by violence.’

Now it is quiet conviction of just this humble, non-violent sort that we find in this morning’s first reading. In his letters to the early churches, St Paul was forever trying out new and not always consistent ways of interpreting the meaning of the good news he proclaimed; and in his practice he was equally flexible and imaginative. In a dream he has a vision of a man ‘pleading with him and saying “Come over to Macedonia and help us”’, and trusting that this was what the Spirit of Jesus was calling him to do, he crosses from Asia into Europe and reaches the city of Philippi. Philippi was a Roman colony with no Jewish synagogue where Paul would normally have spoken, so on the Sabbath he goes down to the river ‘where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there’. One of them, a businesswoman called Lydia, is described as ‘a worshipper of God’ – so she is already receptive to the good news – and so she is baptised, as Alcuin would put it, by ‘a free act of the will’.

Our second reading is very different. It is from that strange book, the Revelation to John, which the Church only allowed into the New Testament after much controversy and with the warning that it must be read not literally but allegorically – a wise warning in view of many later attempts to apply it too literally to current historical events. Revelation indeed in some parts can be very violent, but the passage we heard today is quite the opposite. The heavenly Jerusalem is that ‘vision of peace that brings joy evermore’, as Abelard’s great hymn puts it: where ‘wish and fulfilment can severed be ne’er, nor the thing prayed for come short of the prayer’. All that human hearts have most deeply ached for, is imagined in this vision of the city of God, ‘where no trouble distraction can bring’. 

And is that imaginative vision true? Science cannot tell us; and faith, like politics, is a matter not of demonstration and proof, but of being persuaded. And for faith it is a matter of being persuaded first, that there is always more to reality than meets the eye, even with the assistance of the most powerful microscope or telescope. As we grow up, if we are fortunate, we learn to adjust ourselves to the reality of others and of the world as we come to know it. But as the ancient Greek Sceptics taught long ago, all human knowledge is rooted in the faith that we can truly know anything at all, and that there are limits to human understanding, beyond which there can be nothing but faith. If we are not to ‘lack all conviction’, we have only faith – of one kind or another – to take us forward.

And in this, today’s Gospel reading suggests how. Jesus asks the paralyzed man lying near the healing pool a strange question: “Do you want to be made well?” And when the man says he has no-one to help him get to the pool in time to be healed, Jesus tells him “Stand up, take your mat and walk”. And the man does. Whatever happened on that day at the festival in Jerusalem, this story encapsulates the nature of faith. If politically or religiously we ‘lack all conviction’, we are mentally or spiritually paralysed; and the only escape from that mental or spiritual paralysis is to get up and walk on in faith. That may not give us all the certainties we would like, but it will set us on the way.

There is a Latin phrase, often attributed to St Augustine, solvitur ambulando, it is solved by walking.  Literally this can often be the case: get up and take a walk, take an amble, give yourself time to walk, to think, to pray, and things may fall into place. And then: “Follow me” says Jesus, walk on with me; and as Albert Schweitzer, also a century ago, wrote: ‘to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.’ “Follow me.” Solvitur ambulando.

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