Theology and Nostalgia

Sunday 24th April 2005
Year A, The Fifth Sunday of Easter
St. George's, Hurstpierpoint
John 14:1-14

There must have been a time, in the golden age of the 1950s, just before rock and roll, John Robinson's Honest To God and John Osborne's Look Back in Anger, when it was easy to find your way, a golden age between the badly signed meandering roads of Old England, poorly adapted for motor cars, and the introduction of bewilderingly complicated one-way traffic systems, which take you away from where you want to go.

This, too, was the time when it was supposedly easy to know the truth. The Church, though battered, still stood solid and orthodox; the BBC stood alone, fearfully anticipating the arrival of ITV; and although there were deep under currents, the illusion still remained that the two great wars had not changed anything fundamental. And this was the last decade when we had relatively straightforward views about the meaning of life, at least in its literal sense: there was a debate about abortion but it was supposed not to affect people like us; if there was a debate about contraception it was pretty subterranean, not something people talked about even if they used it; and, at the other end of our earthly span, we were on the verge of abolishing hanging for murder but it was not possible to imagine a debate about euthanasia.

So this was the last decade when people thought that knowing the way, knowing the truth and knowing about life, were relatively simple. There was a right way of doing things; there was Gospel truth; and there was a meaning of life.

Then something happened. The prim dam of suburban respectability was broken. Suddenly, everything was in flux; and it has not calmed down since. The social ferment has raged so violently that it is impossible to imagine putting it all back into some bottle, grimly guarded by the Daily Mail.

One response to this serial discomfort, this constant state of flux, this challenge of what we now call "Edgy" material is to escape into nostalgia and myth. And so, we now have what is, in a materialist age, eerily called "Resurrection Television": first Doctor Who was revived; then the Two Ronnie's; and now we all have to look out for a much feistier Muffin the Mule.

Jesus lived in a profoundly nostalgic age. Since the time of the Maccabees, 160 years before His birth, Judaism had developed the idea of a Messiah but this entangled the liberation of the soul with the liberation of the lands of Judah and Israel, a return to the golden days of David and Solomon when these two territories were united under one king. People were rooted in the past and had no tools for sorting out which new developments were a natural extension of their tradition and which were hostile.

So when, in today's Gospel, in reply to Thomas's question, Jesus says that he is The Way, The Truth and The Life, all in capital letters, his listeners could not easily reconcile this with their religious tradition. They wanted the Messiah to come but they had no way of recognising when this happened. What Jesus was proposing was both radical and simple. First of all, He said that there was only one way to God and that was through Him. Secondly, He said there was only one Truth and that was the nature of His relationship with the Father. And, thirdly, He said there was only one life and that was realised fully only in Him. That, of course, is to put the matter into an understanding of the theology of the Gospel of John but Jesus put it so simply that it cut the Jews to the quick; He was, He said, the Son of God and, therefore, He claimed to be God Himself. You can see why the Jews found this difficult; they simply did not have the tools to project their tradition forward.

But are we any better? What sort of tools do we bring to our relationship with God? Do we bring the tools he gave us, such as enquiry, logic, empathy, creativity; in short, do we bring philosophy and theology to bear, or do we simply rely on our individual prejudices and the undeveloped religious ideas of our school days, hoping that the Bible will somehow speak to us?

When discussing the meaning of philosophy, there is an old Monty Python rejoinder which says: "It depends what you mean by mean"; looking at today's gospel, it depends what you mean by way, truth and life. It is our job to give these words some content, to make them resonate within us as we bring our worldly skills to bear on the reality of our relationship with God the Father through Jesus and within the compass of the Holy Spirit.

Thinking of the idea of "The Way", we might simply want to say that Jesus is our good example; that we should behave in the way that He behaved. We might, however, think of this idea in terms of a journey; the way Jesus took is the way we must take, recognising, as I said at the beginning, that for us as sinners, the way might mean getting lost or temporarily getting further away from our objective when we are trying desperately hard to get nearer. Or we might mean by way, the more theological idea, primarily in John, that Jesus is the intermediary between human beings and The Father.

If we find these alternatives challenging, they are nothing to the array when we think of the idea of "The Truth". We have some idea of being true to ourselves and being true to friends; but we become very confused about more general ideas of truth. So, for example, sometimes we use the word truth to mean that which we recognise or understand which, of course, shuts out all the things we don't recognise or understand. We also use the word to mean something exclusive and incontestable which stops us expanding the idea and challenging its narrowness. Conversely, some people say that there is no such thing as truth because the truth for each of us is necessarily different. But that is not the same thing as saying that because we are all different we may all behave as we please. Knowing why these two things are not identical involves us in understanding the nature of truth and also the nature of life.

Let us then open the topic wider and think about "The Life". Why are we here? That is not the same as the question How are we here but the answer is the same; God. If we can grasp this, not as an extra layer of piety, but as our core, the thing that makes our life what it is, then that life, which Jesus says He is, is also what we are. If we accept that, then it puts all other questions about our existence, what we call 'life' into context. This can help us, again using philosophy and theology, with ethical questions about birth control, abortion, capital punishment and Euthanasia.

But philosophy and theology cannot go the whole way. They can give a variety of explanations of the meaning of life but only our faith, the faith at the core of our being, the faith which we can only suppress but never deny, only our faith can answer the question about the meaning of life.

The theologian Karl Barth once famously said that when we read the Bible we should have a newspaper in our hand. Clearly he had more respect for the Neue Zuriche Zeitung than I have for any newspaper published here. Nonetheless, I think we can amend his exhortation. We must read the Bible with a solid Commentary at hand; and we must think about what the text meant for its writers, its contemporary audience and ourselves as we read it now. And in doing this we should give ourselves a solid, philosophical and theological base; instead of assertions we need arguments; instead of formulas we need beliefs.

Without this base for understanding ideas like The Way, The Truth and the Life, it is difficult to arrive at a sense of what Jesus meant when He used these words. Without some framework which we might call form, we cannot be transformed; without some tools for understanding we will, like the Jews who listened to Jesus, get stuck. We need to use the tools which God gave us to do our life's work of moving towards God by following His Way, living His Truth and, therefore, being part of His life.