The Counter-Factorial

Sunday 16th June 2013
Year C, The Third Sunday after Trinity
St Peter's, Henfield
Genesis 13
Mark 4:21-41

We live in what is now commonly termed a "postmodern" age. The word is used rather loosely which is not surprising when it describes a state of thinking loosely, a state of mind where people do not want to commit themselves to anything absolute. Thus contemporary authors tend to title their books: "Bob Smith: A Biography" rather than "The Biography of Bob Smith". We have "directions of travel" instead of decisions, "scenarios" instead of situations and, in the context of today's readings, we have to take into account the fascinating concept of the counter factorial.

Let me explain. If I decide on a course of action to solve a problem and, after months of perseverance, I make no improvements, I can argue that you cannot know how bad things would have been if I had not taken my course of action; that's the "counter factorial". What it says is that you can't know what would have happened if you hadn't done what you did. In the case of our two Readings I want to look at the counter factorial in a slightly different way, that is to think about what would have happened if people had done what they should have done instead of doing nothing.

What if the Chosen people, following on from Abraham, had believed in the covenant that he struck: if they had remained faithful to God, would they have had countless offspring all living in the land of milk and honey? Well, as we are all imperfect it's a bit of a hypothetical, if not pointless, question. They - and we - were set up to be imperfect and therefore they never achieved the potential notionally set out in the Covenant. And if we look at the long and troubled history of the Chosen People we might say that they paid an inordinately high price for what faithfulness they could muster in an imperfect world; no people, in all the horrors of recorded history, has paid more. It is as if the aspiration to some very limited form of perfection goaded their less principled neighbours.

Now it's too easy for Christians to be sniffy about the way that Judaism respects the Law and to say, rather glibly, that we are Easter children who follow Jesus' commandment of love rather than finding refuge in observing what is laid down in Old Testament rules and regulations but I think there is a much more helpful contrast between the Two Testaments which the Readings draw to our attention. The servants of Abraham and Lot are in dispute and they come to a temporarily amicable agreement which is the best they can do; but the Parable of the Sower and all of the parables about planting and growth are not about settling land disputes but about being fertile in ourselves as the harvest of the Word of God. And they pose the counter-factorial question, what would it be like if we stopped worrying about the world and about the conduct of other people and simply concentrated on our own spiritual fertility. Well, again, its a hypothetical question because we will never totally pull ourselves away from the idea that living in a communal world means reciprocity of benefit and opinion; but the choice is not as stark as being unworldly or worldly, the challenge is to be unworldly in the world, as much a matter of the direction in which we are pointing as the place where we stand.

It is easy to discredit what we don't like by exaggerating it. I've always felt sorry for those lovely lilies of the field which neither toil nor spin which are taken to represent a state of idle fatalism. Jesus is not telling us in that parable to sit around and do nothing just as in this Parable of the sower he is not implying that as the ground where seed is dropped we can just let things happen. The parables of growth are about attentiveness to the present and honest work whose purpose is not accumulation. Being fertile in ourselves requires a degree of unworldliness which grounds us in our relationship with God rather than seeking aggrandisement in competition with our neighbours.

I used to think that the greatest danger to the growth of the Word of God was indifference, the failure to act positively in love, but I am beginning to think that the thorns, the cares of this world, are fast becoming our greatest danger. Every generation, sadly, thinks that it is worse than its predecessor; and our generation can look back on our economically threadbare childhoods and echo Mr. Macmillan in saying that people today have never had it so good; even in the economic down-turn the material conditions of even the poorest bear no relationship to the conditions of the generation which grew up before the implementation of the Beverage Report and the foundation of the NHS but, still, the level of discontent is palpable. As part of a market economy which borrowed itself into disaster for want of patience, we are in danger of repeating the same mistakes all over again. Yes, the thorns of the cares of this world are doing very well indeed.

And so I think that it is time to take a fundamental look at our society and ourselves. It is easy for us to say that riches don't make people happy - I hear somebody saying this almost every day - but it seems not to put a brake on the pursuit of riches, as with those who answer questions put by surveys, we know what we ought to say. We are quite sophisticated enough to give the right answers without believing them. So what about the counter-factorial? What about trying to care less about accumulation and even to care less about tomorrow and more about today? What about living intensely for the moment in thankfulness rather than orienting life permanently to the future, never content with what we have. I hear from saints that this is a fine strategy but of course I can't know for myself.

What would it really be like if we were to adhere to the Covenant and to pay proper heed to the Word of God? We cannot fully know but as followers of Jesus it is our duty and pleasure to give it a go.