Saturday, November 13, 2010

Go, with God-talk: Valedictory Eucharist 2010

[From a Sermon given at the Valedictory Eucharist for the Trinity College Theological School, November 13 2010]

"Then Jesus told them a parable..."

As you leave here, your degree or your orders will bear eloquent testimony to the fact you were studying “theology”, the logos about theos – you have dared to speak about God. Whether lay or ordained, this is now your calling.

I hope that one of the things you have learned about God-talk here is how difficult it is. God is not a matter for glib or light speech. God is the one represented in the theophanies of the Hebrew Bible, reflected only feebly in the most terrifying and inspiring phenomena of creation. God is the one who gives the insights of the true mystics, who know that God lies beyond speech and knowledge, and may be more adequately known in darkness.

We come to this calling of God-talk in a world that is uniquely sceptical about a God who was never the one we proclaimed, or at least we never should have. Our contemporaries, at least in the industrialized world, often believe science has removed the need for God as a hypothesis to explain the world or a crutch to cope with it. Yet the use of God thus was always a form of idolatry. God is not the answer to our questions or problems – unless we are prepared to relinquish those questions in the process, in favour of new ones.

There was real, if incomplete, wisdom in Ludwig Wittgenstein’s famous words “whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent”. There are some forms of atheism that are better than some forms of belief; for to proclaim boldly the existence of a God who is not God is worse than the reverent uncertainty of silence.

Yet the Church, which starts with the truth and wisdom of those cautionary observations about the difficulty of God-talk, steps boldly into the realm of the indescribable and the unknowable, and speaks. And it calls you to do so now.

The Gospel reading we have heard this evening, often presented rather too neatly as an encouraging story (just) about perseverance in prayer, is relevant to this question.

Jesus tells this parable of the “importunate” widow and the unjust judge, which is clearly intended to tell us something about God. One of the characteristics of parables generally, and the basis of their suitability for God-talk, is that that are both revealing and concealing at once – the Reign of God is not reducible to single propositions, but neither does it reduce us to silence. We can speak of God, always hopefully but always also provisionally, or indeed parabolically.

This parable is, I admit, about prayer. The editorial introduction tells us this (“Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart”) but sometimes we have to read parables without (as well as with) the well-intentioned editorializing of the evangelists.

The point is that the parable says something about how unlike God this judge is. It is a piece of negative theology. God is not the judge of the parable; but if an unjust judge will grant a persistent petitioner’s request, how much more…

Something similar applies to our own inevitable self-comparison with the widow. We are encouraged to prayer – one kind of God-talk - in this parable, but not to a spiritual hectoring that implies a correlation between quantity of prayer or robust religiosity and likelihood of success. The parable invites trust, not hyperactivity or pig-headedness. It suggests that God’s grace, not our own “godliness” (to use an over-used term) is the point.

The most important and difficult interpretive statement, more important than the evangelist’s opening line, is Jesus’ closing one: “And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”.

We could try to correlate that uncertainty with the scepticism already noted, which threatens the viability of religious institutions and beliefs; but the point is slightly different. Jesus is not asking whether the Son of Man will find persistent prayer-partners at work, but whether there will be the “faith” the parable calls for. And that “faith” is not merely (or not at all) robust religious belief, unless it is belief in the true God beyond speech and knowledge.

To understand what this means, we may have to step back from the parable itself, to the earlier question of God-talk. We proclaim that what Jesus says about God – negatively as well as positively - is true, not (only) in that it is somehow factually accurate, but insofar as what he says about God, he says about himself. The startling claim of the Gospel is that the God beyond speech and knowledge has spoken to us in Jesus, the Word, whose words and actions reveal the character of God’s reign. And so the logos we must speak in ministry and mission is always of this theos, the God of Jesus Christ; not the God of pseudo-scientific explanation, nor the God of material or spiritual success, but the God of love known on the cross.

This is still difficult; but it is difficult not so much because of what we can or can’t know, but because of how and when and who we can or can’t love.

Religious belief may or may not provide that faith for which the Son of Man seeks. The theologian is inevitably concerned with it, with religious institutions and belief systems, but to be among those found with faith, she or he is called not to religiosity as such but to love. This is also the foundation, I think, of what it means “to pray always and not to lose heart”.

All your erudition, your pastoral professionalism and your godly piety will not matter without love. With it, your actions as well as your words can be testimony to the one who has, remarkably, called you to speak.