Dieu parmi nous
The Divine amid the mundane
Third Sunday in Advent, 14th December 2003
One of the things that fascinates me endlessly about being a Christian is the opportunity it affords for argument. Organists are, of course, renowned for being argumentative creatures and I sincerely hope that I am no exception. I have always had plenty of chances to argue with my friends about my faith, especially as most of them are agnostics and take a fair bit of convincing that Christianity is actually a good thing. These arguments are always challenging because agnostics tend to be clever and well-informed people. I think it takes quite a bit of intelligence and not a little courage to be able to confidently say “Actually, I’ve no idea what’s going on at all.”
My own life as a Christian is quite typical for an organist, I think. I only started attending church regularly when I joined the choir at Southwell Minster and ever since then I have attended church as a musician firstly and a Christian secondly. You could perhaps say that I am a professional Christian.
So I’ve worshipped at cathedrals, high churches, low churches and plenty in between.
And now I’m here.
I think it is quite safe to say that St Peter’s is one of those in-between churches.
Before I came to St Peter’s I did some freelance organist-about-town work in London and ended up playing in various different places, one of which was a Unitarian Chapel in Hampstead. This was a very rewarding experience, not least because - being Hampstead - the organist fees were ludicrously high.
Unitarianism is ostensibly a Christian denomination, it was certainly founded as such but has since become progressively less explicitly Christian and its theology has expanded to encompass... well, everything. It seems to me that their aim is to locate a central irrefutable truth and an understanding of God that is not bogged down in details about which we are unable to be certain and is actually enhanced by an ability to embrace the very uncertainties that cloud our understanding of His nature. Those details that they are avoiding (transubstantiation for instance) are the very things that have torn the church apart over the past 2000 years. And, in my humble opinion, these are things that are not worth losing any sleep over.
(One of the best comments on these very details and divisions was made in a television comedy programme a few years ago. Jesus and his disciples are at the last supper and when Christ breaks the bread and gives it to his disciples and says “Take eat, this is my body”, one of the disciples interrupts, saying “do you mean the bread is actually your body or merely represents it? I wouldn’t ask, it’s just that it would be good to clear this up now to avoid any disagreement later on.”)
Despite its wonderfully broad theology (something that one would have thought would be enormously popular in this day and age), Unitarianism is going through a crisis at the moment in this country. Attendance is at an all-time low and Unitarians are having to ask themselves very serious questions about what their church is supposed to represent and what its purpose is.
So to what do Unitarians attribute their decline? Well, the slightly bitter-sweet answer is that they attribute it in part to an increasingly popular, enlightened, liberal and intellectually self-conscious Anglican Church. Basically, we’ve stolen their idea. But, of course, the Anglican Church is merely starting to do what it should have been doing all along. Exposing its own understanding and belief in God to intellectual scrutiny and coming up with some refreshingly vague answers. Occasionally, even the candid and true creed of the agnostic: “I don’t know”.
I was having an argument just a couple of nights ago with someone whose experience of Christians was a generally negative one. She found that many of the Christians she had met were quite blinkered in their world view. She really disliked the fact that people were prepared to profess a faith when they hadn’t explored the alternatives. This is a point of view to which I am very sympathetic. I think one’s faith is sharpened and enriched by a knowledge and understanding of other religions and practices. I am sure that no-one here would be particularly appalled if I was to say that we, as Christians, do not have a monopoly on metaphysical truth and have a duty to investigate some of the other ways that people have of understanding and articulating it.
Probably the type of religious practice that fascinated me most when I was younger was transcendentalism. I have come across many people who subscribe to various forms of such religions and practices. Of course, some transcendental practices are better than others. I was unlucky enough a few years ago to be involved with somebody who practiced Falun Gong. This is a cult that sprung up in China about ten years ago. Its founder, Li Hongzhi took up Chi Gong at the age of about forty after what had been hitherto an unremarkable life as a mediocre trumpet player and factory clerk. After studying for a couple of years he suddenly realized that he was, after all, a Chi Gong master who had been around for hundreds of years and that he was the only living person who knew how the universe worked and the only option for the world was to practice “Falun Gong” which is basically Chi Gong but with the exercises altered in order to make the practitioner hyperventilate. Now, Li Hongzhi has millions of followers around the world, probably not the hundred million that he claims to have but a very large amount for a new religion. The Chinese government, who are - of course - terrified of any popular organization that could threaten the dominance of the communist party, has banned Falun Gong and is busy oppressing members of the cult. Li Hongzhi has accordingly fled the country and is sitting pretty in America getting fat off the proceeds of sales of his books.
The thing I find most odious about Falun Gong, however, is not the horrible exploitation and brainwashing techniques used by an obvious charlatan but rather the view of the universe that he peddles and that is actually accepted by so many people. He says that the world in which we live is a specially designed last-chance saloon where the scum of the universe have to exist in a horrid parody of reality and play out a sufficiently righteous existence until they’re fortunate enough to get out of it. And his version of righteousness is not to try and solve the problems inherent in the world, to improve one’s own lot and that of others and bring justice, love, beauty and truth to the world but simply to read his books and sit and hyperventilate. Basically, to transcend this earthly life to escape to something better.
Now, I do understand that for too many people, life is a horrible and scarcely bearable thing but looking around at the world and all the beauty in it I cannot believe that it is designed for our discomfort. Anyone who has eaten roast beef, drunk scotch whiskey, listened to the music of J S Bach or read Anna Karenina should be able to confidently say that there is plenty of beauty in the world and that the creation is covered in the fingerprints of God. Why on earth, therefore, would we need to start thinking about transcendentalism?
I suppose the most obvious equivalent in Christianity to transcendental experience is the sacrament of communion. An opportunity to communicate with God directly. A way that a physical act can transcend a gap between the human and the sacred. But I don’t take Christ’s invitation to “Take, eat” merely as a statement that every time one eats bread and wine that has been suitably consecrated you are in communion with God. I think there is a little more to it than that.
I think that as we relate to God’s creation we are permanently in communion with God. There is no need for us to transcend anything. That has been done for us already. The physical and the divine were linked from the beginning. It is of the divine that the world is made. And we can see, taste, smell, feel and hear that at all times. And if we forget this, Christmas is there to remind us. The divine and the mundane are united in Christ. As they were from the beginning. And this is why all the eating, drinking and singing is such an appropriate way of celebrating the incarnation. Because we are tasting divinity at every turn.
In my opinion, this is what Christmas is about and this is what life is about. And this is expressed most eloquently and beautifully in a poem by 17th century Christian poet Thomas Traherne simply titled Wonder. This poem could possibly be about the incarnation but I prefer to see it as the account of anyone who is aware of and comfortable with his place in the world and is in communion with the Divine through the mundane.