Fight the Good Fight

 
Date:
Sunday 6th March 2016
The Forth Sunday of Lent (Mothering Sunday)
Place:
Holy Trinity, Cuckfield
Service:
BCP Evensong
Readings:
2 Timothy 4.1-18

Ever since it was discovered that illnesses are caused by pathogens, the language of medicine, as Susan Sontag pointed out in her two books on medicine and metaphor has taken on a military flavour with immunological defensive systems, aggressive medicine and, of course, in every obituary where cancer is mentioned, the heroic fight against it; never less.

The problem with metaphors, of course, is that they can be wildly misapplied. My favourites at the moment are all associated with the anthropocentricity of the weather so that "organised bands of clouds mean that the sun is struggling to break through". But, returning to medicine, we can, literally, fight pain through courageously carrying on while we feel it; in this sense we are fighting for our self determination against an obstacle, we are asserting what we value either out of deep commitment to an activity or out of sheer bloody mindedness, but we're not fighting cancer; the metaphor, to a degree, is right when it says that chemo- and radio-therapy are fighting cancer but, even there, chemicals don't fight! Not even nuclear weapons fight!

But as he was kept imprisoned, writing letters to churches all over the Roman Empire, Paul might at least have some claim to use the metaphor. He had taken up arms against no-one, itself an achievement given his innate pugnacity but he had: struggled across land and sea; been imprisoned more than once; been beaten more often still; and generally abused by Jews and Gentiles alike in tirades from the highest officials to the lowest mob detractors. And to say that he had fought the good fight sounds a good deal crisper than saying he had struggled the good struggle; so let's call that ball in.

And what was this struggle for? Well, strangely for a man who did more than anyone else in human history to formulate doctrine, on the hoof, so to speak, Paul was defending sound doctrine against critics, first Jewish, then Greek.

And herein lies the danger of becoming too emphatic about sound doctrine: put simply, Paul was saying, in different formulations, that the death and Resurrection of Jesus had saved us from death and that we would, consequently, be "justified by faith in Jesus Christ" (Romans 4.22), a phrase seized upon by Martin Luther with cataclysmic consequences.

At root, we have to recognise that doctrine, sound or otherwise, is based on human language which is necessarily inadequate for writing about God but, secondly, it is subject to the vagaries of translation from one language to another and variant understanding over wide geographical tracts and through long periods of time. Thus the passage in Matthew 1.23, translating the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Jewish Scriptures, takes Isaiah 7.14 to foretell the virgin birth of the Messiah; thus, again citing Matthew, the misunderstanding of Jewish rhetoric is taken to require the grotesque spectacle of Jesus, on Palm Sunday, riding simultaneously on two donkeys (221.5-7. And in the case of Romans 4.22 the problem revolves around a translation of Paul which assigns salvation, in spite of Luther's denial of "works of the Law", to our faith in Jesus; whereas an equally valid translation of the text says that we are saved by the faithfulness of Jesus to us, taking the matter out of our hands and egos . I know which I prefer.

And although it sounds somewhat flippant to speak in terms of doctrinal preferences, if we accept that all doctrine is provisional and incomplete and that the mysteries of God are subject to a variety of human understandings, then it is not surprising that we have doctrinal differences: the Apostles lived under a looming eschatological shadow; the great Ecumenical councils lived under the Imperial shadow; Luther and Calvin lived under the Papal shadow; and we live under a scientific, rationalist shadow. Those born with Christianity in their psychological DNA, as I was, probably have a very different life experience of God from those who find faith in later life, often in an electrifying moment.

But however we came to faith and whatever our sensibilities and temperament, it seems to me that there are three external cultural factors to which much of the Church of England has succumbed. The first is the adoption of what Sontag called the "Military metaphor"; the gap is fatally narrow between fighting for Christ and fighting each other. Secondly, and extending from that, we have slipped into consumerism, so easily condemned in the material world but overlooked in the spiritual; and this means that the conversations about doctrine from different points of view have degraded into assertion. And, thirdly, even while we maintain that Christianity is a public and not a private phenomenon, we have shifted calamitously from "thou" in addressing God to "I". If you compare the index of the English Hymnal with Songs of Fellowship you will see precisely what I mean.

Now at one level, because we are writing about mystery, how we view our faith inheritance is not so important; but when one says that Jesus gives himself to us in Baptism where another says that we give ourselves to Jesus in Baptism, the theology might be overlooked but the self regard cannot be; egotism is seriously bad for us.

My conclusion is that doctrine is neither immutable nor a free-for-all but that it provides us with ways of seeing and, in an over intellectualised religion, ways of feeling and that, consequently, we should be careful neither to go about destroying each other's tools nor fighting over metaphors. Doctrine is the product of a listening theology.

But, finally, much of our doctrinal disputation is a displacement activity which gives us something to do, which we justify as worthy, instead of bringing God's justice to the poor and oppressed, along with the Good News of Jesus which is nothing without it. Jesus wasn't a theologian so, at the very least, we need to be careful. My grandfather once told me: "The earth is not short of clever people; it's just short of good people". Amen.

Prayers

  1. Heavenly Father, we thank you for the many gifts we have been given so that we may exercise them in your name, being good stewards of the earth's resources and champions of your prophetic justice; may we honestly separate the crucial from the peripheral so that we care for others instead of indulging ourselves.
  2. We thank you for Your Son, Our Saviour Jesus Christ, who came with a message of love, peace and justice; may we scrupulously attend to what he said, not allowing our own glosses to obscure the purity of his mission.
  3. We are grateful for the ever present Holy Spirit whose grace infuses the Scriptures and Sacraments; may we be a listening church, open to the Spirit's guidance, when we try to formulate language in which we can speak to each other of God.
  4. Father, Son and Spirit, the economy of love and the icon of diversity, may we conduct our Christian lives and conversation in a spirit of love, with respect for diversity.
  5. Finally, Father, we pray that The Church, the gift of Jesus to your earth, will play its part, within the Communion of Saints, to prosecute the sacred mission of building The Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.

Sources

  1. Sontag, Susan: Illness as Metaphor and Aids and Its Metaphors, Penguin Modern Classics
  2. Campbell, Douglas A.: The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul, Erdmann’s 2013