Betjeman, faith and doubt

St Mary's Church, Trinity 11, 27th August 2006
Ephesians 6: 10-20; John 6: 56-69
And is it true?

A hundred years ago this week John Betjeman was born. Whatever you think of his poetry – and it is certainly eccentric – he is surely worthy of a mention. There is something very distinctively English about him and his attitude to his faith. I don't know how much you know about him. He was very drawn to the High Church traditions of the Church of England, but was devastated when his wife Penelope, under the influence of Evelyn Waugh became a Roman Catholic. Yet he was entirely pragmatic about the differences between Roman and Anglo-Catholicism. Some were to argue later that actually his faith was very superficial, and that he was constantly on the verge of agnosticism, but it was in fact the depth of his Anglican faith that prevented him from converting to Catholicism, after his wife, when he longed to keep his family together. In a letter to Penelope in 1949, he wrote: “We are a complete family, beside which the questions of whether Anglican Orders are valid or what happens at the Consecration, are unimportant” Unimportant, he would say, because in substance there was little theological difference between his and her beliefs. He was so far as he was concerned a Catholic within the Church of England.

And yet.... one of his most arresting and memorable poems, 'Christmas' asks three times – and that is no accident - 'And is it true?'

In a less well-known poem, 'Aldershot Crematorium', he writes:

“I am the Resurrection and the life”:
Strong, deep and painful, doubt inserts the knife.

Faith and doubt in the Gospel reading

Our Gospel reading this morning is rather unusual. We are used to hearing about disciples just not getting it, but in this passage we are told that many of Jesus' disciples turned back and no longer went about with him and Jesus asks the twelve whether they too wish to go away. Even face to face with Jesus, doubt rears its ugly face. Faith and doubt – two sides of the same coin. If that was happening – and why would the evangelist record such a negative story if it were not? - amongst those in the immediate vicinity, chronologically and geographically, of Jesus, it is not surprising that the church, and individuals within the church, have to struggle, and have always had to struggle to keep the faith alive. Mainly with themselves.

The Myth of God Incarnate

Some years ago – nearly 30 actually – a book grabbed headlines of notoriety. It was called The Myth of God Incarnate, and contained a series of essays by prominent theologians published to try to force into the public arena discussion of fundamental doctrines of Christianity. It seemed that the challenge to faith that the intellectual and scientific revolution had clearly produced was being protected from scrutiny by a sort of pious coalition of the ecclesiastical mafia and an unwilling churchgoing public, uncomfortable at having to face precisely the dilemmas that John Betjeman wrote about in their own lives. And then there was the media..... Yet what those authors themselves admitted was that they were not dealing with anything new or original. They were simply bringing out into the open what was common talk in many places and had been for 150 years. As T S Eliot said: 'Christianity is always adapting itself into something which can be believed.' This was the process which these theologians sought to bring out into the open, just as the Great schism between Eastern and Western Christianity had in 1000, and the Protestant Reformation of the 16th Century had, and just as Jesus had. The foreword to the book explicitly recognizes the dangers inherent in the thinking. 'Writing of the kind represented in this book is liable to strike many as disquietingly negative and destructive', they wrote, and then went on 'Let it then be said that our hope is to release talk about God and about Jesus from confusions, thereby freeing people to serve God in the Christian path with greater integrity.' A reasonable aim, one might say!

So what was the problem? I could perhaps ask you that question. I suspect that many of you remember the publication of the book. I suspect that some, perhaps all of you will have formed an opinion of the book. But how many of you read the book? The problem lay in the title. That is not to say that the content was not challenging. It asked us to look at the language of faith in quite a different way. But the introduction of the word 'myth' into talk about Jesus the incarnate Word of God was a red rag.

Can we speak of myth?

There has been much written about myth since then. It is still almost too controversial to use the word in relation to our faith. We are perhaps just about able to say that the creation stories in Genesis have the character of myth. We can see that it is very hard indeed today to use those biblical stories as the factual basis for how and when the earth and humanity came into existence, but that they do carry with them powerful insights, through story and symbolic language, into the nature of the God we believe in. When we extend our examination into some of the other stories, like the Flood and the Exodus, even if there could be some basis in history for them, we can see that they have been embellished, they have been used for a purpose to illustrate what we need to understand about the way God loves his people. But to extend that possibility to the use of language about Jesus is a step too far. This is very difficult, because it leaves us very uncertain about how to use the Bible, which bits of it to take as read, as simple down to earth, immediately accessible truth, and which bits either to reject or to know that we have to work much harder at. The end result? Well either it is to ignore the Old Testament and become fundamentalist about the many of you who come here in the morning but not often in the evening, ever hear the Old Testament read? Is it of no importance to our belief structure today? Without it, the New Testament is incomprehensible! Jesus did not just appear from outer space to save the world for ever. Jesus was recognized as Messiah, God's Word in human form, from the context of everything that is recorded and reflected upon in the Old Testament. And the Gospel writers recorded the story in such a way that those who read what they wrote would see for themselves, not just because Jesus said wise things and performed miracles of healing and feeding and so on, but because from the depths of their religious hearts, they would recognize the Truth of God Incarnate.

So the other option, apart from rejecting great swathes of the biblical tradition, is that we find a growing gap between our belief and practise and out intellectual development. This was the great gulf that John Betjeman was gently pointing out. We go on immersing ourselves in the practise of our faith, and those of us who are at ease in the ordered, sacramental life of the more traditional, catholic tradition find this much easier to do than those who have stripped away the trappings of formal worship, but our grappling with the facts and propositions of faith in our intellectually and scientifically sophisticated world becomes more and more desultory. That is why change is so hard to deal with, especially change in liturgy. Our framework of safety is being challenged. If this goes, what then is left?

Chewing on the Truth

We are in the midst of a new reformation. The structures of the past, institutional, intellectual, spiritual are not sustainable. Christianity – and other faith systems too – must adapt itself into something which can be believed... again.

And today's Gospel story should help us to see this. The truth is unpalatable... literally. When Jesus (in John's story) challenges his disciples to understand the fundamental shift in perception that he represents, they cannot take it. 'You must understand that what I am is absolutely basic food. Never mind what you have been fed on before, the ritual food of your past religious tradition; you must take me and, again literally, chew me up.' Jeremiah had said that about the Law – 'chewing and digesting it, as a lion its prey'. If your life, your relationship with God the Father, is going to begin to conform to the demands of the faith revealed in Christ, then each day we must take and eat again and again and again, allowing the goodness, the sustenance of that holy food to be released in every aspect of life. This is in itself mythological language. It is taking a profound and inexpressible truth about God and conveying it to us in story, in image, in allegory, in parable, consumed and all-consuming.

And is it true? And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all.....

Betjeman never answers his own question, but he knows that if it is, it is a greater truth than any ritual, any narrow doctrine or tradition can ever contain. It is a truth that must be consumed afresh, day in day out. To keep returning to the question, and to see afresh the richness of language and genre in which our faith has been passed down to us is neither to undermine nor to dilute the truth of our belief. Quite the opposite. It is to welcome and celebrate the truth that our God is immeasurably greater and richer than anything that we can think or see or describe. God's truth is always opening up ahead of us. Be strong. Put on the armour of God and walk confidently into God's future.

Andrew Deuchar

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Last revised 2nd September 2006