Credal Sclerosis

Monday 27th April 2020
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
The Stations of the Resurrection
Luke 24.13-35

The kernel of the Gospel of Saint Luke can be divided into four ep0isodes: First, the Last Supper and institution of the Eucharist; secondly, the trial, suffering and death of Jesus; thirdly, the Resurrection; and, finally, the journey to its Emmaus and Eucharistic conclusion.

Luke, being the master storyteller of the Evangelists, says nothing by accident, so we can be sure that this Emmaus episode is critical.

It has often been said that the discourse of Jesus on the Scriptures and the Eucharistic meal precisely pre-figure the way we worship on Sundays in, as we say, Word and Sacrament.

It is not surprising at all that we both argue over and, paradoxically, are careless of the people and things we most love. We take our loved ones and our familiar possessions for granted but, at the same time, most of our bitterest arguments are about the relationships with loved ones. It is the same with the Bible and the Eucharist, the Word and Sacrament: they are the core of Christianity but they are the elements over which we have fought our bitterest battles.

Perhaps in this lock-down we might, through further study, learn to appreciate the unlimited complexities of understanding the Bible which does not stop us reaching conclusions but which helps us to appreciate that these conclusions are necessarily provisional because language about God is metaphorical, because the Spirit isn't finished with us yet and because, in spite of our intellectual pretentions, much of what we assign to rationalism actually results from the combination of temperament and experience.

Conversely, Eucharistic deprivation might help us to appreciate better what we are losing. There are different traditions in Christianity which try to explain the mystery of the Eucharist but the word "mystery" really gives it away: we only have human language to explain God. It is almost a theological cliché to say that humble human beings are much better off focusing on what rather than how; if the Eucharist is Christ with us in Sacrament, i.e. an outward sign of inward grace, then we can put aside our worries about how it happens.

The Road to Emmaus which, in the words of Jesus himself, began with the crossing of the Red Sea, leads us all to Christ's altar.

It is important to remember that both our understanding of the Bible and of the Eucharist have histories as long as Christianity and that, in both cases, these histories have not been directionally consistent; rather, there have been radical changes of direction. The place we are now does not arise from the place we have been in the way that, for instance, our understanding of scientific phenomena, agriculture, cosmology, the human psyche, has unidirectionally improved over the centuries. In Biblical history, for example, the consensus shifted from symbolism to literalism over the course of a Century from 1500-1600 and our understanding of the concept of the Body of Christ shifted from the Church to the Eucharist over a period of about 200 years between 900-1100. Today, there is much more room for consensus on both Word and Sacrament than there was when the Medieval Church had a monopoly and later when saying the wrong thing might result in execution for heresy. In a gruesome realisation of the story of Romeo and Juliet the Thirty Years War was fought in Europe from 1618-48, ostensibly over theological issues which had been totally obscured by the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648.

In the light of such historical rigidity and brutality, we should learn to value plurality; nobody should be expected to give up theological conceptions that they find helpful, neither should they be expected to conform to a majority view of what is a helpful metaphor. Theologians work in a tradition where, over time, certain ways of understanding God are found to be more or less helpful and, over time, some of these have been crystallised into doctrine, into Church teaching, but even this more solid way of thinking and talking is provisional.

None of us can do more than read with wonder Luke's account of those privileged Disciples who learned from Jesus' account of Scripture from Moses to their present day and who sat at the table while he broke bread and so this should lead us to be humble in our assessments of our own theological prowess and that of others with whom we interact. Disagreements about the Bible and the Eucharist may be worth a lifetime of study and generous discussion but they are not worth a moment's bitterness.

It is said that the problem with plurality is that it leads to a breakdown of communication, that we end up not being able to talk to each other because we do not share common understandings of concepts but surely this lack of understanding is not because the language fails but that we fail; too busy to get across our own position we do not listen to the other; too apt to be preparing what we are going to say next, regardless of what is being said to us, we do not process what is  being said to us before replying. Diversity requires more than a policy; it ever requires more than tolerance; it actually requires dialogue.

But, it is said, there are matters over which there can be no difference and, therefore, no dialogue, notably the Articles of the Creeds t which my reply must be that there is not a single Article in the Creeds which does not have a 2000 years history of struggle to reach an understanding. I cite as only two examples, but probably the most extreme, the concepts of  "The Resurrection of the Body and life everlasting". All the great theologians of our tradition have made attempts to put these ideas, largely derived from 1 Corinthians 15, into some kind of conceptual framework but no theologian has done so well as to render others useless. If it brings security at all, Credal sclerosis in the 21st Century brings false security.