Sunday, 16 August 2015

Flesh-and-blood Religion

Since I haven't heard a sermon for a couple of months, I thought I'd write one, for a lark.

16 August 2015. Readings: 1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14, Psalm 111, Ephesians 5:15-20, John 6:58

Today's gospel reading presents special difficulties for those of us brought up in the intellectual tradition which has dominated Western thought certainly since the days of David Hume. It is the passage where Christ says, "my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed: whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood shall have eternal life".

Before being abruptly halted by illness last March, I was researching how nineteenth-century mainstream Christianity, which was evangelical, was enriched by narratives of the Gothic imagination - initially to explain why those evangelicals left us so many neo-Gothic churches. Those Victorian Christians loved bible passages like this one. It is rich in the Gothic emotion which had rescued their evangelical "economy of salvation" from a tendency to cold, dry rulebookiness. It adds drama into the Lord's Supper, enhanced with music, robes and images. Above all, it was exciting, titillating, with just a hint of vampires: vital tools for making an intellectual religious tradition popular with the masses.

This was all very well for the Victorians, and I believe was genuinely vital for infusing the Gradgrindish society of the 1830s and 40s with the twin ideals of middle-class social responsibility and working-class self-improvement, resulting in the public libraries, better housing, universal education and so forth of the later Victorian period.

But it is no use for us. We may enjoy vampire stories more than ever, but we cannot take them seriously. "Gothic Evangelicalism" has lost intellectual credibility. Our reaction is that of the Jews in the story, which was, more or less, "What the fuck is he wittering about?"

The Jews in the gospels, and especially the Pharisees, are always depicted as lacking imagination, stuck in a rut, their whole identity invested in an outdated worldview. The Jews of Jesus' time are clearly the equivalent of our "establishment" thinking today, whether religious or secular. I said at the start that we live in an intellectual tradition overshadowed by the scepticism of philosophers such as David Hume, although its roots go back to Socrates. It has stood us in excellent stead, providing us with the tools to access to seemingly unlimited riches, power, and scientific knowledge. It has been a good tradition to commit to. Evangelical Christianity was a product of this tradition, a historical fact which often surprises non-Christians today. Yet if you went back to the Christianity which evangelicalism slowly replaced – belief in the divine right of kings, doubts about the humanity of black Africans, unwillingness to promote popular education in case common people had ideas – you would easily see it was a religion of the enlightenment. Evangelicals built schools, abolished slavery, spread democracy. (There were also, of course, plenty of selfish, cruel or greedy people who hijacked the evangelical bandwagon to promote harsh capitalism, conquest or imperialism, but they were not the soul of the movement).

Modern secular humanism, often seen as the opposite of or alternative to evangelicalism, is really the same philosophy. It rubbed off its religious veneer to accommodate the loss of intellectual credibility; but in doing so weakened it, by losing the narratives and traditions which enrich and sustain any worldview over long periods. "Liberal" Christianity represents various shades of attempts at compromise between the two.

This is the worldview, apparently three but really one, in which I have been brought up. Yet I am convinced that, like the "evangelical" Pharisee and "humanist" Sadducee Jews in the gospel stories, it has become wrong, because the world has changed. In my lifetime, the environmental crisis has unfolded. This week we passed "world overshoot day", when human exploitation of the earth's resources exceeds what ecosystems can regenerate in a year, a date which in 2000 did not occur till October. Since I was born, 37 years ago, the amount of wildlife in the world has halved, and my nephew is unlikely to share our world with large mammals such as rhinos or tigers in his adulthood. Biologists now generally agree that life on earth is experiencing a mass extinction event, such as the last occurred when the dinosaurs were wiped out 65 million years ago, but this time caused by our activities. Jesus and the Pharisees, a mere 2000 years ago, suddenly seem like yesterday.

The scale of the out-of-the-box thinking required to face a situation which has never occurred during the existence of homo sapiens, which has unfolded within the lives of still young people, is hard to comprehend. This is why I believe those weird statements of Jesus, and the Jews' reaction, are still deeply insightful and instructive – perhaps more today than ever. I have said before when speaking of Christianity and the environment, that "Jesus" doesn't mean sustainability, social projects, or sensible solutions: "Jesus" means "salvation". Because that's what we need: salvation.

"My flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood shall have eternal life."

"What the fuck do you mean?"

"I mean, if you do not wish to destroy everything which gives you life, and gives your life meaning, you need to unhook yourselves from these enlightenment, rational, theoretical ways of thinking; from your blind faith in human intellect and problem-solving. The "wisdom" which the other Bible readings today keep insisting upon, will no longer be found in that. I don't mean you should believe in made-up nonsense, but rather that you should acknowledge two things:

First, what all great scientists and intellectuals discover eventually: how little we know. Watch a documentary about animal behaviour, or the deep oceans, or astronomy, and see how many transformative discoveries are made every week. Learn humility.

Second, that the establishment "religion" of our society (whether the Christian or humanist version) has diminished the physical world, the world of flesh and blood, bread and wine, into mere objects of study; while our own ideas, in books, on blackboards, on the internet, have become all the meaning, all the gods that we have. But "God" (or "meaning" if you prefer to be secular) is not floating about in ideas. God, or meaning, is here, in flesh, blood, the sporting dolphins, the poached rhino, the cleared rainforest, in bread, wine, the starving child, the obese cake-addict, fantastic sex, wild swimming, chronic illness. God, or meaning, is right here, in me, in my hands and feet, standing in front of you – and can be in you too, if you get the point of what I'm saying. Learn that God is down here."

"What the fuck does he mean? Crucify him."

"Eat, and drink. When you are complicit in perpetrating mass extinction, wisdom, salvation, is not just remembering the things I said, but remembering that I, like you, was flesh and blood."



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