Sunday, 20 June 2010

From the Pew - Vincent Strudwick

De Deo 
(Concerning God) 

‘God in the life of Canon Vincent Strudwick’ is what it says on the Order Sheet, and I shall try to share how I perceive Him in life. I had no problem in choosing a reading, and it is the story of ‘wrestling Jacob’ in Genesis 32 verses 24 – 29 where (for those of you who used to watch the wrestling on TV) Big Jake wrestles with the Nameless One –God – and tries to pin him down. It is a story from before the time of formalised religion in Jewish history, and resonates with me, because I suppose the story of God in the life of Vincent Strudwick reflects that wrestling match in Genesis. ‘God’ for me both as a concept and in life, involves wrestling.

Now I am also conscious that as I speak, I may tread on toes, because God in your life may be perceived quite differently. Let me say that from the very beginning of the Christian Church there have been widely differing perceptions about God and how He may be experienced, and from the beginning this has caused big rows. In some periods of history, those in authority in the church have felt the need to lay down ‘norms’ of belief in creeds and doctrines, and if these were not conformed to, then the dissenters were branded ‘heretics’ sometimes with terrible consequences.

Some of us had thought that certainly in the Anglican Communion, we were getting towards the stage where we were able to accept sincere differences in belief and practice as a company of disciples ( learners) in study, on our knees and in society searching for truth and caring for people. We were aware that we shall never in this world find a complete resolution to our intellectual differences; but we were committed love each other while searching. Alas, developments in the Communion over the last fifteen years have proved otherwise. But I want to say that for my part, I want to listen to, and value, your experience, as much as I hope you will listen to mine.

Experience. That’s it, and where we start in understanding God. My experience was that of a conventional, believing family in London, and then in a suburb of Tunbridge Wells during the second world war.

I can remember the terror of adults as we went to bed in the Anderson Shelter, my piano teacher who was killed in a raid, being evacuated, and later sheltering in the ‘cupboard under the stairs’ as Doodlebugs (Hitler’s V1 rockets) fell at random.

My mother prayed, and I prayed with her.

In those days, in the suburbs, ‘everyone’ seemed to go to church and the churches were full. We know it was only about 30% of the population, but it was the 30% that set the tone of the culture. I sang in the choir for ‘soldiers services’ (there was a big camp near us, a depot for regiments on their way to France after the invasion) and religion as I experienced it was robust. My Vicar (a retired Master of Hailybury) had fought in World War 1 and the Bishop who confirmed me had won a VC (and lost a leg) in the same conflict.

The war ended, and we learned more about what had happened, and as a teen-ager I found I was curious. What sort of a God is God ?

In those days we did an exam called ‘Matric’ and after Matric, I worked for the War Damage Commission while I tried to get into junior seminary, which I did in 1950. I went to the Society of the Sacred Mission at Kelham where a junior seminary of forty odd boys was attached to a theological college of over a hundred students – at that time, nearly all ex-service ranging from ex-colonels to cooks and drivers. I thought I would set to work on studying the Bible – but no. I spent a year studying Philosophy, Logic, Primitive religions, English, Literature, and Latin.

My main tutor, a friend till the end of his life eight years ago, was a distinguished historian and poet; and in 1950 still alive at the age of ninety was the Society’s founder and first Director, Herbert Hamilton Kelly; an eccentric, but great man. Three years ago I was asked to contribute his ‘life’ to the ‘New Dictionary of National Biography’ where he now has a place.

In 1924 Kelly had spoken to a massive gathering of international students at Swanwick and began his speech with the words: ‘I’ve come to talk to you about God; some people think that is about ‘religion’ but the two are rather different.’

Those words still resonated when I met him 25 years later, and as I later found, determined the theological learning that we did there.

Anyway, with my mind sharpened by the preliminary course, I was ‘called up’ into the RAF and served for two years as a Pilot Officer in the RAF Regiment. I was tempted to stay in, but Kelly had intrigued me, so I returned to Kelham for four years of theology and philosophy and history, and then to Nottingham University for three years of history and politics and economic history, before being ordained in the Church of England.

At Trinity tide this year, I celebrated 50 years as a priest; and for eleven years I was a monk in Kelly’s Society.

It was in this context that I learned to wrestle. I learned that ‘religion’ is how people formalise and celebrate their discoveries about God, and that in their formalised guise, they are culturally dependent, and that the church is a social phenomenon as well as a theological concept. ‘Religion’ whether it be Christian or Islamic or whatever, has a history and has to be studied and evaluated like that. Religion can be bad; it can also be very good. It is bad when it is dogmatic and exclusive, as a study of church history illustrates. Today, many in Europe have turned their back on religion, partly (but not entirely) for that reason. Today’s young are tempted to be (what the sociologists call) SbnR – Spiritual but not Religious. They have abandoned the experience of others and the past but are still searching for the ‘and more’ in life.

Many of us ‘in religions’ who are theologians, and wrestling with ‘God’, understand this , but also regret that (e.g.) the church has been abandoned, because we need such fresh seekers, who will ‘make connections’ between their own experience, and that of those in religion in previous generations, as we continue the exploration – for that is what it theology is – into ‘God’, which is an essentially non-dogmatic and experimental discipline. As Fr Kelly once said ‘You’re never wholly wrong – except when you think you’re wholly right’ !

But of course this has, through the ages, made for tension between the academy (where theology is done in a cerebral way) and the institution (where theology is done in the living out of life in the every day) and where the clerisy has often acted like a black (cassocked) policeman to stop people ‘going wrong’.

Now at last, we are ready to approach an understanding God through academic theology.

My experience here, all those years ago, was to be excited when I learned more of the struggles of theologians through the ages. In this short time I shall focus on two only, both European, and both flourishing eight hundred years ago. They are Thomas Aquinas and Meister Eckhart, both University Professors and Dominican Friars.

Aquinas, perhaps most famous in religious circles for his ‘Proofs’ of the existence of God, is most revered in the academy for his approach to the whole notion of God, when he said that ‘God’ is not the answer to anything, but the question. That is, what sort of God is God ? ! That chimed in with my own experience and thinking when a teen-ager. I’m alright about God, but what sort of a God is He, and what does ‘God’ mean ?

Now Eckhart took Aquinas’s question, and said what happens if we strip ‘God’ of all the accretions of religion ? What is ‘God’ when he is naked , stripped of the ‘clothes’ with which religion has decked Him ?

In a famous sermon, he came to the conclusion that ‘Deus est Esse’ – ‘God is Being’.

Now skip eight hundred years, and hear John MacQuarrie on this. John, (Ian as we knew him) was a dear friend, and had been Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity in the University of Oxford – he was succeeded by the young Rowan Williams in the eighties.

Now Macquarrie said that if you take this view it entirely changes your way of looking at things. For a start ‘God’ is not an entity – by definition. He is not a super-entity; he is the essence of Being itself.

Of course religion has dressed this up, because otherwise how can you talk about God ? But once you do start talking about Him (Father, Creator and so on) you distort the reality. Again, I was helped in this when (as a student) I met Professor Ian Ramsay, in the 1950’s Nolloth Professor of the Philosophy of Religion at Oxford who said that because of our limitations in talking about ‘God’, we may use words and descriptive human concepts, and ‘God’ may be something like - but He is more ! His analogy was to think of, say, ‘Love’ as a many sided figure, with more sides being added to the depth and quality of love that we experience. Now think of infinite love, and the many sided figure becomes a circle – something different.

Well, what about Jesus then, described (loosely) in the institution as ‘the Son of God’. The very human Jewish Rabbi Jesus, whose sketch of a life and death, and whose teaching has come down to us in the Gospels, was very early on written up by Paul of Tarsus, a convert who had never met him, as the Christ of Faith.

In order to get over the importance and perfection of the expression of ‘Being’ that was Jesus, the early church, led by Paul created a mythology which developed in the epistles and early church till we get the credal definitions of the early 4th century.

Does this mean rejecting ‘the miraculous’ out of hand and looking at the whole development with scepticism ? Not at all. But it does mean looking at all the possibilities with the scholarship available and with reason. Two interesting books that might challenge us to do this are The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ’ (2010) by Philip Pullman, an engaging atheist teller of stories; and Professor Geza Vermes book ‘The Resurrection’ (2008) Professor Vermes is a scholar Rabbi. Both are challenging and may make you cross; but if we are going to commit ourselves (which is what faith is) then we need to commit yourself to something that resonates with your experience, and that we have tested out.

When some of my former students invited me to celebrate with them a Eucharist in New College on the anniversary of my fifty years as priest, half a dozen of them (including a bishop) were from over forty five years ago, and they were about to retire ! Now that does make you feel old, when your students ‘retire’. One of them, a wonderful parish priest for all that time, said he remembered a sermon I preached at Easter 1964 in the theological college, on the Resurrection narrative in John’s Gospel where Mary meets ‘the Risen Lord’. ‘And she, supposing him to be the gardener, said…..’ ‘Suppose he was the gardener, I said ‘(apparently) ‘The resurrection miracle was that after the Jesus experience, Mary now saw all beings as ‘sons of God’, revelations of the divine energy in the whole of creation, offering them love and respect.

Now what that did for my student then, was to offer him the freedom to think, to explore, to test out in his experience, to find ways of interpreting the great Biblical story, the meta-narrative, in a different manner. He became a theologian !

And let me say immediately, I was asking a question; making a suggestion, not stating a ‘fact’. ‘Suppose’…….It is what a scientist does as s/he experiments and tests things out; and it is what a theologian does as s/he explores.

Of course, since the sixties, we know more about science than we did then. The new physics is not so sceptical about the possibility of walking through doors.

But the point is having the freedom to explore in the light of the evidence; and following from this, that the ‘Holy Spirit’ is the name for that creative energy in us, in our being, that is the essence of ‘God’.

We are (in the words of Richard Hooker, the 16th century Anglican Divine who has been my special study over the years) ‘associates of God’. We are the agents of divine intervention in today’s world. The Eastern church’s Fathers (and one or two Mothers who haven’t been written out) put it more starkly and talk about the ‘divination’ process in us.

We have, in Hooker’s process, the Scriptures telling the story, countless numbers of Christians through the centuries forging the tradition, and ‘reason and experience’ in our day enabling us to interpret and live the story out in the everyday world.

And this is where it matters.

This has been the main tradition in the Church of England, where the ‘Word’ of God , that is the fullest expression of ‘Being’ is there in Jesus (the Word made flesh) and is there when we too live in accordance with what we can understand and ‘incarnate’ of his spirit. It was about God in relationship that the very early attempts to talk about ‘the Trinity’ emerged a century after the birth of Jesus; for example in St John’s Gospel.

Scripture helps us in this process of understanding what ‘God’ means and what He is up to, , but it is not the complete process. Some weeks ago I was preaching to some Nuns, secure in their wimples, and when I finished the gospel reading, instead of saying’ This is the Word of the Lord’ I said ‘This may be the word of the Lord’. Heads came out of wimples, and of course afterwards I was challenged. My reply to the challenge was that to be real, the word has to be made flesh, and if we hear the word and do it, we, and the world will be blessed.

‘Doing the Word’ is the business of life; living lovingly and conscious of our joined-up-ness with the whole creation in ‘Being’. (I think that is better theology than English !)

On his recent visit to Oxford, Nobel Prizewinner Archbishop Desmond Tutu reminded us of the African philosophy of Ubuntu. ‘The solitary human being is a contradiction in terms, so seek to work for the common good, because your humanity comes into its own in belonging.’ We grow in relation to each other, and discover who we are in relationships. Here is something at the heart of African culture which is expressed in New Testament terms as the Gospel of Love. As the historical Jesus and his disciples taught, ‘God is Love’; or as we might put it ‘Being is Loving’ and we discover more about ourselves, our world, and life and purpose as we put this into practice.

Thomas Merton, the 20th century Trappist monk, discovered this was at the heart of it all towards the end of his life, when standing in a busy American city thoroughfare. He realised his connection with, and his love for, all the bustling crowd in the city round him. For him now (in the words of the Jesuit poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins) ‘The world is charged with the grandeur of God’ and (in the Christian Trinitarian ‘code’) ‘The Holy Ghost over the bent world broods……’

This is the experience of Christian seekers through the ages, and can be traced from a parallel meta-narrative that begins in the teaching of Jesus. Throughout the Gospel stories we have interjections from Jesus asking the disciples to ‘Pay attention’. – sometimes ‘masked’ by translation. ‘Consider’ the lilies, is really ‘focus on them’ ‘Pay attention to the fields’ is another. You will find many.

In order to love, we need to pay attention to what we are loving; and this is at the root of what is known (perhaps in a misleading term) ‘the mystical tradition.

From Dionysius the Pseudo Areopagite (call him Denys the Syrian) in the 5th century, through the Christian centuries, there have been those who have said:

‘Of course you have to tussle with the intellectual issues, but the main thing is to focus on ‘‘Being’ - in love’ As Thomas a Kempis, a medieval mystic wrote: ‘I would rather feel compunction (or any long word! ) than know its definition.’

Like most of us, I suppose, I have tried to do both; and am bad at it of course.

But that is the reason for the church, which is the gathering of people who wrestle, fail, and can find renewal and strength by their sharing.

The church exists in two modes – gathered (e.g. in church) and dispersed. Most of us live life in the dispersed mode, earning a living, raising a family, enjoying relationships, having fun, playing sport, and doing creative things and enjoying the world. We also suffer loss, experience failure, fall sick and have nasty things happen to us which aren’t our fault.

When we gather, we gather to get resourced to ‘be’ better, whether creatively or in need. Stories, sermons, music, liturgy, learning from each other and experiencing ourselves in a community of trust are all vehicles through which this resourcing is meant to happen; and prayer of course.

In the mystical tradition, prayer isn’t about asking for things (as if from a super entity) but rather on focussing on things and people in the context of ‘Being’ in relationships. It is amazing what outcomes, and change, come from this.

So my wrestling is (as I see it) part of the age old double whammy of wrestling which followers of Jesus undertake: the intellectual wrestling which is putting our experience of the real world with the message of the Gospel as part of an on-going ‘experiment’ in faith ; and it is an attempt to encounter ‘God’ through increasing our awareness of people and things, which we do in the fellowship of the church.

Finally a health warning which I tried to spell out when I was a Select Preacher in the University of Oxford in 1999, and it stems from something else Fr Kelly taught me. He wrote ‘ The worship of the parish church is the key which should unlock the mystery of God in the world. Just so. Is it being used to unlock the mystery ? Is it not very generally being used to lock the mystery up, to lock itself up, safely within the church itself.’ He wrote that over a hundred years ago in 1908, and yet……

In my sermon I pleaded that in its intellectual life the church should engage with those who disagree with what it stands for; with scientists and people of all disciplines who are not Christians as well as those who are. We must not lock ourselves up ‘in church’. And today I would plead that whatever the form of worship we adopt ( and the church is ‘semper reformanda’ – always reforming) we do not neglect the parallel meta- narrative of the ‘mystical turn’, allowing and encouraging the journey inwards through contemplation and meditation.

John Macquarrie put to me years ago that if God is not an entity, the question ‘Does God exist’ has no real meaning. He suggested that the sentence ‘‘ Is ‘Being’ Gracious’ might replace it. I am still pursuing this one, both intellectually and in my prayer.

Vincent Strudwick

Vincent Strudwick DD is an Emeritus Canon of Christ Church, an Honorary Fellow of Kellogg College in the University of Oxford, and Professor of Anglican Theology with the Graduate Theological Foundation of Indiana, USA.

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