Love Our Spiritual DNA

Sunday 15th March 2009
Year B, The Third Sunday of Lent
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Family Eucharist
Exodus 20:1-4a; ;
1 Corinthians 1:18-25
John 2:13-25

I have just been reading the dreaded Richard Dawkins [i], scourge of religion, who likens what we are doing here to rituals which rely upon the efficacy of sprinkled goats' blood. We are religious, says Dawkins because, as children, we naturally swallowed what our parents and elders told us about the danger of walking on cliff edges, playing with matches or swimming in crocodile infested creeks; but among this good advice, we were also told by our parents and elders about the efficacy of religious rituals. Religion is, so to speak, the collateral damage (Dawkins calls it a "by-product"), of a sensible, Darwinian principle.

If we look beneath the surface of today's reading from Exodus, we can see what he means. The Ten Commandments are simply the blood-free tip of a mountain of mind-numbingly complex instructions about ritual animal sacrifice; in the last four books of Moses, covering the 'forty years' from the liberation of the Israelites to the death of Moses, less than half is narrative, the plurality being concerned with religious ritual. In a sense, then, the Ten Commandments are a beacon of abstraction, a code which can operate independently of the massive superstructure of animal sacrifice.

Our Gospel reading from John begins with Jesus overturns the tables in the temple, in the courtyard filled with the paraphernalia of sacrifice; and the Jews, schooled in propitiation and tangible manifestations of mercy, from the rainbow to the bronze serpent, ask Jesus for a sign. He replies that he will replace the Temple, the sacrificial core of Judaism, with the Resurrection. Paul, a generation later, facing the worldly-wise scepticism of the Corinthians, as well as the scepticism of Diaspora Jews, yokes the love of signs and secular philosophy together and says that neither is enough; Dawkins is put into the same box as the rituals he excoriates.

It is, of course, easy to be superior about our progress. Every great religious and intellectual movement has claimed superiority over its predecessors, and naturally so, because a reformer who promised something worse would make no sense. So we are used to seeing an inexorable progress from one era to another which, in turn, makes us look down - literally, if we think of the story of civilisation as an ascent, echoing Dr. Brunowski (ii) [ii]- on what has gone before. On this basis, we might say that Christianity is superior to Judaism and paganism; Muslims would say that Islam is superior to Christianity; and Dawkins would say that rationalism is superior to the whole lot.

This, sadly, is not the occasion for an all-out set-to with Dawkins, we have more serious business. Here we are, in the trough of an economic depression, not knowing where to turn: we are not sure whether any of the political parties know what to do, nor even whether that political comet, Barak Obama, has the answer; we do not know whether our pensions will be worth anything; we watch the value of our houses shrink; we worry whether we will keep our jobs. All the worldly wisdom of economists, political scientists, historians and anthropologists seems to have deserted us. However, this is not an attack on those disciplines but simply a warning about their limitations. On such limitations I want to make two points, one small and personal, the other big and social.

The personal point is that one of the major reasons why worldly wisdom is so limited in its usefulness is that our age tends to rank personal experience above evidence. We take our own situation and extrapolate it into a generalisation; this behaviour is, somewhat pompously, termed "postmodern", but I call it narcissistic irrationality. We trust what we know from our personal experience more than we trust theory. It's enough to drive historians like me to throw ourselves off tall public buildings! Alternatively, we could save money by closing intellectual enterprises which rely upon developing theories. Out would go Mr. Dawkins, along with theologians, philosophers, economists and the rest.

But behind the reliance on personal experience, there lies a much larger social point. What we have lost, perhaps in as short a period as three generations, is any sense of trust in society as a functioning organism. We don't believe politicians, journalists, estate agents and bankers, and, increasingly, we don't believe scientists, theorists and, dare I say it, religious leaders. We don't trust teachers, social workers and care homes to love and protect children and the elderly; we just about trust doctors, although we are on the alert to sue them at the first opportunity. We are in pursuit of two dreams that are in fundamental conflict: the achievement of absolute individuality; and the provision by somebody else of a golden safety net should we fall. It is obvious that the very existence of this safety net means that we are not totally independent; but we persist, and when anything goes wrong, we complain bitterly that we are victims of bad faith, rather than simple human error, and trust becomes further eroded.

And although the bureaucracy of assurance - health and Safety, Ofsted, better governance, accounting laws, child protection, registers and databases - has mushroomed, are we any better? How were we helped by all the hoo-ha of better corporate governance in the Higgs Report? [iii]

What we need to hold onto in this period of extreme turbulence is the pinnacle of the code handed down to Moses, the commandments which form the core of our way of living: the first part of that code relates to our worship of our Creator, not with animal sacrifice but with the individual and corporate penitence and humility in which we are re-grounded in Lent. The second part of that code relates to integrity of word and action which is the only foundation for trust. Bemoaning a lack of trust is not enough; we who commit ourselves to God's Word should create what is now called "Social Capital", the glue which holds society together. Ours is not the wisdom of Paul's plausible philosophers, nor the wisdom of scientific rationalism; important though they are, they are not enough.

Ours is the wisdom of creatureliness, of knowing that we are children of the Creator; but, ours, too, is the wisdom of the brotherhood of Christ who rose again to confirm God's love in spite of the death we inflicted on his son and our brother; and ours is the wisdom of the Holy Spirit who informs our being.

When all else fails and, because of temptation, when all else succeeds, we have the wisdom of love: far surpassing animal sacrifice, philosophical elegance and the selfish gene. Love - to parody Dawkins - is our spiritual DNA; without it, nothing else works.