The War of Head & Heart

Sunday 29th June 2014
Year A, Peter and Paul, Apostles
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Parish Eucharist
Acts 12:1-11
Matthew 16:13-19

One of the most elegant intellectual achievements of 19th Century science, pioneered by Linnaeus, was the development of a graphic way - through bifurcating tree structures - of depicting the relationship between animals and plants. We still enjoy the fruits of this scholarship in the labels which describe flowers and plants in the gardens of National Trust properties. The Latin titles are so much more precise than the old English folk names for flowers, plants and herbs.

But the problem with this enterprise to label things is that it has leaked across from natural history into sociology and politics, and even the Church of England where 'Churchmanship' - a word I refuse to use - is variously described as 'liberal', 'evangelical' or ‘catholic’, or in some combination like 'liberal catholic'. The trouble is, people are not like that at all; most of what we hold dear defies a simple label. Take politics: many of us will be identified as conservative (with a small c) on some issues and radical on others; and many of us will hold such a wide variety of views that they cannot be analysed on a linear spectrum from conservative to radical, let alone 'left' and 'right'.

Today is a very good day to remind ourselves of the degree of complexity involved in understanding people because Saint Paul is frequently claimed by people who call themselves - and that is, really, hardly better than being called - 'fundamentalist evangelicals' to stand behind their ethical positions; indeed, if you take such people at their own word, you might be misled into thinking that they rank the written words of Saint Paul above the reported teaching of Jesus by the Evangelists.

To understand Saint Paul, I think we need to bear three major factors in mind. First is that in most of Paul's writing (though not all of it), he is responding to letters he has received but we only have his side of the correspondence; for example, the letters to the people of Corinth are full of anger and pleading, aggression and tactical retreats but we only have a rather garbled account from Paul of what the problems were. Secondly, the neat and tidy sentences in the NRSV belie the fact that some of Paul's Greek is so atrocious that it can't be translated; heaven knows what his scribes were thinking of when they wrote it down. Thirdly, Paul was as human as you and me and he was, therefore, not consistent. How could he be when he was, simultaneously, responding to difficult questions sent to him in the context of his new situation as a follower of Jesus as well as a follower of his Jewish tradition, trying to work out a coherent theology within his new tradition and, finally, trying to fight his own inner contradictions.

I think this last point by far the most pertinent because we all undergo the experience of the war between our heads and our hearts. Paul's head, and his whole experience with Jesus, moves him to praise love as the paradigm for all behaviour, but his heart, his instinct, if you like, drives him on occasion towards harsh moral judgments which stand at odds with the primacy of love. I believe that attempts to square these two aspects of Paul inside an overall theological framework are doomed but this enterprise is necessary if you want to give weight to Paul's harsh moral judgments. You can't, after all, base your own ethical stance on Paul's outbursts unless you can give them a credible foundation; and if you can do that,, then there is still the awkward fact that Paul's overall theological outlook was based on love.

This is why labels are so dangerous in theology. It is also why attaching too much importance to theological words can turn out to be harmful. Some years ago I taught a confirmation class and one of the candidates concluded that it wasn't possible to go through with it. Instead of seeing Confirmation as an important stage on a lifelong journey the candidate saw it as the receipt of a certificate for passing something like an examination where all the answers have been properly given. Of course, there is the converse danger that we will be so sloppy that the words we say about God mean nothing at all; but there is a proper, middle way where we hold our beliefs in a state of faithful exploration, giving ourselves plenty of room to flex our theological muscles; but the point about making room is that we must always presume to hold to the view that suits us least well so that we don't fall into the trap of believing what suits us.

That, at root, is the problem with all labels; before we fix them to other people we fix them to ourselves so that we have a standpoint from which to view the other largely, I fear, in a hostile or disadvantageous light. Nobody can feel secure in attacking the behaviour of others unless they feel secure in the rightness of their own conduct or at least in the security of the power which they think gives them the right to judge. But what grieves me most about the use of the writings of Saint Paul as a moralist platform from which to judge lesser moral beings is that it would have appalled the flesh and blood Paul whose writings betray a constant struggle not only for theological coherence in his new state but also a struggle to understand the relationship between Christ's saving grace and what he understood to be his own intrinsic moral worthlessness.

Ultimately, it is impossible, logically at least, to hold that we are all morally corrupt and yet to judge others. It just will not do. It is quite difficult enough, for me at least, to hold onto some sense of moral coherence within myself which leaves me no energy to preach to others about what, on the surface, they are doing; on the surface because we can't possibly know about the challenges facing other people and the resources they have to deal with them. If we concentrate on trying to love one another, the rest will fall into place as near insignificant; that, not moral absolutism, is our true debt to Paul.