|A sermon preached by Imogen de la Bere, at St. Albans-St. Saviours, on 19 of November, 2000.||
For nation will rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be earthquakes in various places ; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.
The end times.
When I was a little girl I found in the shed a book about the end of the world– such a book would never have made it into the house – produced in the twenties, with lots of black and white photos, a bit like the Children’s Encyclopaedia to which I was addicted.
This book set out to prove that the time spoken of in Mark’s gospel had arrived. It outlined with glee, nations rising against nation, and a whole series of natural disasters, the crumbling away of the old order, the appalling decay of society. I was pretty alarmed (and thrilled) by it all.
I’d love to find that book again, because I think my reaction now would be: you ain’t seen nothing yet!
There is nothing quite so quaint and comforting as past predictions of future chaos and destruction. Quaint because you wonder how anyone could really have been so worried, and comforting because we are the survivors. When I hear environmentalists predicting the dire consequences of humanity’s rape of the natural world, I nod sagely, but internally I feel just a bit smug. You see, Canterbury New Zealand, where I come from, has already passed through the stage of environmental catastrophe – it is a completely destroyed region, an ecological disaster. But over they live in it quite satisfactorily , as here and now, we live in a society unimaginably to our forebears.
Modern Western man is very fond of predicting the future and then frightening himself about it.
One of my favourite pictures of an almost unimaginable future was tossed off by the great Thomas Babington Macaulay in one of his perorations masquerading as a book review. He talks of a time in the almost unthinkable future when: some traveller from New Zealand shall, in the midst of a vast solitude, take his stand on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St. Paul's.
In 1840 a New Zealander was a savage from the furthest flung corners of the world – and the notion of him sketching in London, like a young buck on his grand tour, was almost fanciful, as fanciful as the idea of a ruined London may seem to us still.
The essay, from which this snippet comes, makes fascinating reading. I’d love to quote the substance of it, but brevity was not one of Macaulay’s virtues. It’s a review of von Ranke’s History of the Papacy if you want to run home and read it. But in it Macaulay gives one of the best expressions to the nineteenth century idea of progress
We see that during the last two hundred and fifty years the human mind has been in the highest degree active, that it has made great advances in every branch of natural philosophy, (he means by this science) that it has produced innumerable inventions tending to promote the convenience of life, that medicine, surgery, chemistry, engineering, have been very greatly improved, that government, police, and law have been improved, though not to so great an extent as the physical sciences.
It is something of a paean to the notion of material progress. But, Macaulay goes on to contrast the complete lack of progress in theology and philosophy. He says: A Christian of the fifth Century with a Bible is neither better nor worse situated than a Christian of the nineteenth century with a Bible, candour and natural acuteness being, of course, supposed equal. It matters not at all that the compass, printing, gunpowder, steam, gas, vaccination, and a thousand other discoveries and inventions, which were unknown in the fifth century, are familiar to the nineteenth. None of these discoveries and inventions has the smallest bearing on the question whether man is justified by faith alone.
O how immeasurably far away he now seems! For Macaulay was writing before Nietzsche, after whom all the intellectual landscape of the western world changed for ever.
For with Nietzsche began the deconstruction of the intellectual universe that Macaulay was so confident about. We do not think or reason or read or even feel in the same way a fifth-century Christian thought or reasoned or read or felt.
After Nietzsche every single thing we think or write or do became subject to question. All the manly virtues that Macaulay took for granted - patriotism, honour, a sense of duty, courage, moderation, benevolence– can be viewed as dominating behaviours of an old sexual and social elite determined to keep society under their control. Venerable institutions are unmasked as power structures. Religious fervour has been dissected to show its sexual content. The concept of canons of taste is portrayed cultural imperialism, favouring the works of dead white males. Nothing can be seen as intrinsically good or beautiful in itself, because we have been taught to question our notions of good or beautiful. In the latter years of the century we were shown how even altruism of the highest sort was really genetically determined behaviour, in that, as animals, we are programmed to do those things which promote the continuity of our genetic stream, even when those things seem on the surface to be self-sacrificing. We are told to deny ourselves materially, to live abstemiously, to give away our money because that it in our best interests – the best interest of the race that is. Which as the geneticist explain to us is what we are programmed to do anyway.
Talk about living in an end time.
Well it’s amazing isn’t it, that in spite of Nietzsche and all his followers, after a century of cynical questioning and relentless deconstruction we are still here. We are still here after the devaluation of all our values. We are here in spite of glaring evidence that civilised humankind is capable of cruelties undreamt. We are here in spite of the complete decay of society as Macaulay knew it. We are here after Darwin, and Nietzsche and Freud We are here although God has been long proclaimed dead, the scriptures spread out for us as a welter of a hundred thousand sources, we are here after the demythologising of the gospel stories, and the dismantling of the triple-decker universe.
We are here in spite of questions and challenges to the faith and to faith, of a kind that would have sent our forebears into a faint. They would not have believed it possible for us to continue in such terrible times. End times indeed.
But we are here, and quite cheerful about it all. We must ask ourselves why.
I ask myself often, and I hope you do also.
I came across a clue this week in an article about a philosopher called Jacques Derrida. Derrida is like the high priest of what is called deconstruction, a process of literary criticism which specialises in pulling apart a text to the minutest degree, showing the undeclared assumptions behind every little thing we take for granted. Deconstruction for a while threatened to destroy literary criticism, and even literature, but happily writers kept on writing and readers kept on reading, and the critics found themselves in a ever tightening spiral their voices growing shriller and shriller. The article in question was about the faith of Jacques Derrida. Now there’s a contradiction in terms, thought I.
But what has happened in the thought of Derrida, put very simply, is this. After he had picked apart perception, taken reading and understanding and the practice of religion down to their teeniest tiniest parts, and showed up our preconceptions for what they were, he noticed that still people persisted in believing, and then he had then the task of putting it back together again. And what he effectively says is this – pardon my simplification - once you have picked away all the baggage we bring to religion, all the overtones and memories and emotional needs and social contrivances and habits, once you have noted the basic human need for community, the atavistic need for ceremony, the emotional need for rites of passage, the love of colour and story – once you have picked away every last social or cultural or emotional accretion, what you have left – if you have anything left – is pure faith.
By the deconstructionist logic, faith in God is the pure essence that is left when you have explained away everything else.
And curiously, this is precisely what the practising Christian has been doing for ever, without realising it. Peeling away the layers, shedding the outer garments of self to concentrate of God in all his purity.
Faith is the conviction of things not seen. That is not a modern philosophical definition but a statement from the letter to the Hebrews. Faith is the conviction of things not seen.
At the end of time, our personal time, that is what we will have left. Ourself, stripped bare of all the accretions, and the other, God.
Are you ready?