Reflection 23rd October 2011
Last Sunday afternoon, the Chaplaincy Council met with their spouses to have an afternoon swapping ideas and becoming informed. We came around to talking about grandchildren and fertility. This is a very big idea. People talk about the ‘biological clock’ because they are afraid that they will be too old to have children, before their social circumstances permit it. People want to be biologically fertile. When grandchildren arrive grandparents take great pleasure. The ‘line’ has been carried on. We are happy. We have been ‘creative’ in a biological sense. To see the importance of ‘fertility’ all you have to do is to see the great efforts that are made to help people to become fertile. Think of the cost and effort that has gone into in-vitro fertilisation.
In a similar vein, there is sometimes an implied criticism of women who do not have babies by choice. The Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard is one such. Some more conservative members of parliament have criticised her saying she is ‘Barren by choice’. This is very cruel, but highlights the role that fertility plays in society..
Some religions, like the religion of the Baals in the days of the Common Testament, made a divinity out of the process of fertility: that is, they worshiped the very idea of fertility and reproduction as the source of everything.
The Hebrew religion too, and Judaism today lays great store by fertility. All you have to do is to look at Elizabeth’s words when she heard that she was about to have John (the Baptist). She says ‘Thanks to God who has taken away my shame among women.’ To be childless is to be ashamed.
So what drives this? Fertility means life. If the soil is not fertile, people die. If human beings are not fertile, there is no one to look after parents in their old age. So there is obviously a strong connection with staying alive, and being fertile. But there is more I think. Human fertility is a form of transcendence. Those who have children and grand children can say following Psalm 103 ‘Yes, the days of human beings are as grass. We flourish like a flower of the field, and the wind goes over it and we are gone and its place will know it no more! BUT we do go on! We transcend our own lives in our children. We have cheated death!
Now I heard that before I became Chaplain here, there was some discussion as to whether or not St. John’s would voluntarily ‘die’. This question shifts the template one step to the side. It asks us about how we are ‘fertile’ as a congregation. This is a question about whether or not we will have passed on our ‘genes’ in the faith. John Westerhoff 111 has written a book which addresses this question called ‘Will our Children Have Faith?’
But passing on the Faith is not as easy as passing on one’s genes biologically. When I think back on my own story I remember how being part of the family was also to be part of the Church. The two were inseparable. To stop going to Church meant to stop being a part of the family. This meant that for me, deciding the question of Christian faith, and religion in general was not one that could be avoided. So I went to study theology, and began to work out a view of things which would both allow me to be my own person (necessary for citizens of ‘The West’ ) and to be a Christian.
The thing that strikes me about this is that for many, the question of Christian Faith is one that is put into the ‘not necessary’ basket. There are many things that are ‘necessary’. Making a living by participating in the economy is one of them. Being ‘fertile’ in some way or other may be another.
So the question of being ‘fertile’ in the Faith, is in the first instance a question as to whether or not this kind of a decision is necessary. It takes a lot of effort to come to a personalised faith that is able to give an account of itself. Why this effort is necessary is something that is not immediately obvious. The way society is organised now means that being Christian is not supported by the creation of large spaces of time where nothing happens, so that people could go to Church. The pressures of finding a job and getting an education and getting a good start in life are clearly great, and somehow don’t compare to the ‘pressure’ to make a decision about Christian faith. The Church has become ‘barren’ partly because the soil into which our ‘seeds of faith’ have been planted has become rocky.
We can not do anything about that. But there is something that we can do. I was talking to a group of people last Friday about what happens at Vilars. One of the members of the group said ‘Well, the truth of the matter is that at Vilars there are a number of English speaking people who are committed to Christ, and who want to reach out to their friends.’ We can do that too. Last Sunday we talked about two ways in which that can happen. The first is by establishing some groups for support and reflection on the gospel around our area. These groups can also be places where people can enquire about the Faith. This will come in the next year or so. The other thing is to think about how we worship so that this too becomes a place not only for those who already have faith, but for those who are coming to faith. How this happens is not yet decided, and when it is, will be decided by a process of ‘theological reflection’ that members of the Chaplaincy Council can also show you. As part of last Sunday’s study afternoon.
But the a priori decision that has to be made is whether or not this congregation thinks steps toward becoming fertile in this way are necessary. I can’t think of life any more without the constant presence of the Psalms, and the New Testament, and the Eucharist and the whole range of symbolic and liturgical supports that ‘frame’ my life. I am sure that this is true too for many of you. Our question is ‘Is it necessary to try to make this intelligible to people who do not ‘get it’, and if it is, what does that mean in terms of our actions?
Your Companion on ‘The Way’