The Illusions of Stability

Sunday 17th July 2011
Year A, The Forth Sunday after Trinity
Holy Trinity, Cuckfield
1 Kings 2:10-12
1 Kings 3:16-28
Acts 4:1-22

Today's first reading from the First Book of Kings is what I call a "Rah Rah" reading; I mean, the only sensible reaction to it is the churchy equivalent of "it's in yer face!" Clever young Solomon who routed the cynical woman who called for the baby to be sliced into two! Clever young Solomon whose kingdom waxed great. But foolish old Solomon who was seduced by his own power and opulence, who turned against God and, for all his earthly wisdom, condemned his earthly kingdom to division and ruin. Solomon, when offered anything he wanted by God, chose wisdom  so that that, in turn, would give him everything else; but it wasn't enough. The virtue that started out as obvious became mundane; and the vice that started out as venal became normative.

The second Reading from Acts is a bit of a "rah-rah" too. Here are the good guys, Peter and John, healing a crippled man; and then the bad guys, the Temple authorities, become judicially heavy and lean on them not to go round proclaiming Jesus as the Messiah. Quite right too! The Holy Spirit clearly hadn't visited the High Priest and his mates. How were they supposed to know?

Now it isn't the job of a preacher to look for funny angles and draw perverse conclusions, ignoring the obvious, but this game of goodies and baddies is not straightforward. Over ten years, Tony Blair sank from hero to villain; Wayne Rooney has been both inside a year; Princess Diana was both at the same time; and in this uncertain world, we never know. Was Jade Goody a hero or villain? Was Shilpa Shetty a charming lady or just a bit too precious? As I say, we never know; but the chronic absurdity of our lives is that we think we do.

The way that we handle uncertainty is to set up frameworks, or paradigms, or standards, against which we judge passing phenomena. They are different words for roughly the same kind of thing but they have slightly different connotations.

A Framework is the least exacting form of structure because, like a children's climbing frame, it has rigid structure but there is a lot of room inside it for variant behaviour; there are different ways of climbing and lots of room for manoeuvre and different end points to the climb; but you are still aware of the limits.

A paradigm is a posh word for a framework which captures an existing state of knowledge. In other words, it sees a pattern in what we know and then explains phenomena which were previously inexplicable. A good example of this is the construction of the atomic periodic table which predicted the existence of certain chemical elements which were subsequently found. A less certain paradigm about matter and anti matter posits the existence of as much of the latter as the former, although nobody knows where it is.

A standard is the most exacting because it blends together two ideas: the idea of standardisation or conformity which has a moral colouring; and the idea of a measurable bench mark of performance. The standards which currently cause the most debate are those around health and safety where we simultaneously rail against red tape and demand regulation any time anything goes wrong on the basis that the "nanny state" should leave us alone but that it must "do something about it" whatever "it" is, when something goes amiss.

The flaw in this superstructure, which of course you have all spotted, is that frameworks, paradigms, standards and all other patterned ways of understanding our existence change through time. Frameworks of child protection tighten as we understand the problem but loosen as we resent disproportionate controls; the Newton paradigm of the clockwork universe gave way to Einstein and Heisenberg; and our standard, say, of athletic performance or industrial efficiency changes as technology improves; and our safety standard on nuclear energy has been jolted by the accident at Fukushima.

Going back to our two readings, then, the problem for Solomon was that he, almost without noticing it, changed his own framework from god-constructed reality to self-constructed reality. The problem for the religious hierarchy in the second reading was that it did not discern the paradigm shift from the pre Messianic to the post Messianic phase; and, drawing us into the debate, our problem with standards is that we are not open enough to the possibility of what are called paradigm shifts, changes in what we know and what we understand which alter our self understanding.

But, underlying all of this, perhaps the deepest point is that frameworks, paradigms and standards are not as objective as their proposers would want us to think; we live with illusions of stability. One of the paradigm shifts that took place in the 20th Century, for example, which affects the way we think about everything, was the growing consciousness that structures are not somehow given, objective, sacred constructs but are actually, at least in part, the result of the assertion of intellectual, social and political power so that the results reflect the viewpoint of the authors.

So what does all this have to do with us? Let me suggest three lines of thought:

But if there is one, over-riding theme in our readings, it is that we must always be deeply suspicious of what we think is obvious; and that particularly applies to our attitudes to religion and our dealings with God. Perhaps in no other area are we so vulnerable to becoming lazy and judgmental; but, necessarily, if our relationship with God is to grow, we must be open minded and open hearted, playing our part in what must be a dynamic relationship. Better, in the end, to be wise rather than clever; but, better still, to be humble rather than wise.