Sunday, 3 January 2016
An Epiphany walk on the Dark Side
If Star Wars were real (apologies to anyone who wrote "Jedi" on the last Census), you might think the Dark Side of the Force was in the ascendant. The world is in darkness, and it desperately needs light. A pretty uncontroversial statement, obvious enough from just the briefest glance at the news, at first sight even a platitude, because pretty much everyone, hand on heart, could say the same thing: as long as they're the ones who've got the light.
I'm going to say that the world needs light, and not just any light, but the Epiphany light of Christ. But I'm not going to say that we in the Church are the exclusive bearers of that light, and that everyone outside the Church is dwelling in utter blind, darkness. That's because I believe that the light of Christ, the Epiphany light, is unique, different from the kinds of light that people want to shine in each other's eyes.
Broadly, there are two ways of looking at the darkness of the world. The first is the more common way. It sees the world as essentially dark, basically a bad place that we need to conquer or to escape from. It's not new: it was popular in the day of the early Church, when Gnostics and Manichaeans painted the world in dual tones of black and white, the physical realm being dark and bad, to be escaped from into the goodly light of the spiritual realm.
Fifteen centuries later light-dark dualism came back into vogue with the Reformation, and the French lawyer John Calvin's teaching of Total Depravity: namely, since humanity's fall from grace, the world and all beings in it are utterly and completely wicked, and only God is good. Since creation is basically bad, there can be no point in asking for the prayers of saints, and no good can come from created images and icons: there's God, there's the world, and there's nothing in between. "Some are born to pure delight, some are born to endless night," and that's just the way it is. The same theme emerged in the 18th century in Wahhabi Islam, the kind subscribed to by today's Islamic State, with a particularly narrow definition of monotheism: again, there's Allah, there's humanity, but nothing in between. This means the majority of Muslims, who do things like visiting the tombs of great Imams and asking the help of their saints are actually polytheists, even worse than non-Muslims, fit to be killed, because they are corrupting al-Wahhab's "pure," "authentic" Islam. Other Muslims are in the dark, and we're the only ones who have the light.
It is not just religions that fall into this first dualism. Because we are so used to it, it would be easy to overlook the most dominant worldview in the western world, just as damaging as the others. It's the worldview of the Enlightenment, and its 17th-century foundation myth endures to this day: once upon a time, there was the Dark Age of unreason and superstition ruled by the tyrannical mediaeval Church. Luckily, into this darkness shone the liberating light of sceptics and freethinkers. Since then, the world has enjoyed constant progress governed by the neutral, indisputable principles of science and reason, towards the tolerant and liberated society where we now live, happily ever after.
But the historic reality is quite different from the myth. The Enlightenment was founded not in peace and tolerance, but in bloody revolution. In France, tens of thousands were killed, the entire county of the Vendée exterminated, for holding to their dark, unreasoned faith; likewise the 120 million civilians executed in peacetime for daring to think in ways that did not comply with the Enlightenment-inspired radical equality and atheism of 20th century Communism; and blind faith in science has led not always to peace and prosperity, but also to racialism, eugenics, nuclear weapons, thalidomide and DDT, all considered "good science" in their day.
This is the enlightened worldview that left Blair and friends outraged when we bombed democracy into the Gulf and curiously, they didn't vote for the nice secularists they were supposed to; the worldview that calls any music that's not Western pop "classical,” any dress that isn’t suit and tie or t-shirt and jeans or any food that isn’t meat and potatoes “ethnic,” any values that weren’t concocted within the last three decades by European liberal academics and lawyers “traditional.” It's the worldview of the Commission on Religion and Belief, which wants us to abolish compulsory collective worship and selection by religion in church schools, because secular space is neutral space, and religions should be studied only from the Enlightenment's 'neutral' perspective. So the rhetoric of the Enlightenment secularist is much like that of the fundamentalist, whether Christian or Muslim, defined by that same dualism: we're the enlightened ones, and you others are in the dark until we shine on you.
Christian tradition offers an alternative. Calvin's view of an utterly evil and fallen world has never been the mainstream of Christian thought, not even among Protestants: it comes from cutting the bits of the Bible he didn't like, and complementing his findings with a very narrow reading of the small selection of St Augustine's texts that he had available in the 16th century - incidentally, a similar technique to al-Wahhab's. But the wider Church, Eastern and Western, Catholic, Orthodox and mainstream Protestant, has always taught that creation is not fundamentally bad, but good, and it says this because of the Incarnation: because while God is absolutely other from the world, yet paradoxically He exploded that dualism by penetrating into the created order. The Word became Flesh, God became human; and in the three great episodes of the Epiphany, we see Him sanctifying creation: not condemning the gifts of the Magi as worthless dust, but accepting them; making out of humble water rich, intoxicating wine; not disdaining the humble waters of the Jordan but entering them in baptism and so blessing all waters; and what these revelations, these Epiphanies, show is that we humans are fundamentally, inwardly sanctified because God entered humanity, became one of us.
The Greek word for "truth" is aletheia, and literally it means "unveiling." Unlike the light of the Enlightement, the light of the Epiphany is not shining into a void: it is shining through a veil to enkindle a spark that is already there. God's light shines onto what He has made, what already bears His image, His maker's mark, and is there in every being He has made. And this means that for Christians, the world is not our enemy, not in absolute darkness just waiting for our light. It's not a matter of Light versus Dark, Jedi versus Sith. The Church doesn't have the divine light locked away somewhere: it is all around us, and our role is to search it out in others and enjoy its reflection burning brighter growing deep in them and ourselves, a light to share, not to impose, as Jesus did not impose His nature and burn out our faults but shared in our humanity.
I'm off to Camden Town, as you know, but here in Berkhamsted, you're starting to rethink the vision of this church. I'd urge you to resist the dualisms of us and them, St Peter's versus the unfaithful; to resist the Church's decline into seeing outsiders as 'customers,' the faith as something to be sold like a used Mondeo with clergy in shiny suits and showroom Muzak to match. Make your vision an Epiphany instead, be inspired by Christ's light shining through the world He made and marked, not despite it or against it, and welcome Him in the humble order of created things: in each other, in the poor and sick and hated, in those who want to be our enemies, in the biting wood of the Cross, in the Body and in the Blood of the Most Blessed Sacrament. You will find truth worth sharing there.
Posted by Tom Plant