Each Saturday I like reading Giles Fraser’s column in the newspaper. He resigned as a canon of St. Paul’s Cathedral, London over the cathedral’s response to the ‘Occupy’ movement’s occupation of some space outside the cathedral in 2011.
Well last week he wrote something that rang true for me. I thought I’d share it with you, and expand on it a bit. He was talking about Christianity and after introducing the subject with some references to despair in the scriptures said ‘I know nothing of easy Christianity…God, for me, is the name of the struggle, not its simple elimination. It is the wound and not the bandage. The Question, not the answer’ Do you get that? God is the name of the struggle, the wound!
I have thought this too, but never put it in such clear terms. You know, sometimes I go into the Church to say my prayers in the morning, and think about the canticles and how they say ‘Oh God, how wonderful you are’ and I don’t want to go in, because I want to say “God, I’m sad or angry or perplexed or desperate and I would rather say that than praise you.’ Well in my head I know that that is possible, and I have often done it before, but to say ‘God is the wound’ is to put the struggle of life with God at the centre of things, not at the fringes where it is most often put. This comes as a bit of a relief really.
Jacob got wounded in the hip and goes of limping after his struggle with God. The whole book of Job is about his struggle with God, and the book of Jonah is about Jonah’s struggle with God. I think to name God as ‘the struggle’ builds into life with God something of the kind of freedom and ‘not us-ness’ that Karl Barth wanted to keep. When God says to Moses ‘My name shall be ‘I will be who I will be’ God seems to be saying that “I am free. I am God. You will have to follow and trust me, and you will not be able to pin me down.” Life with God is not keeping the regularities of nature going as was life with the Baals, but life with God was a life in history: a life where new things could happen, a life that required a trust in the fact that the ultimate source of our existence is, as Giles Fraser writes, ‘fastened to a point beyond one’s comprehension or control.’
We get echoes of this too in Robert Bolt’s ‘A Man for all Seasons’. Thomas More is arguing with his Son-in-Law to be, Roper, who is at this stage a firm Protestant. Roper accuses More of making the law his god. More replies ‘Oh, Roper, you’re a fool, God’s my god . . . But I find him rather too subtle . . . I don’t know where he is nor what he wants.’
But could we build a whole congregation on this message? Could we put onto our notice board and offer with Churchill ‘Come unto us all ye who labour and are heavy laden and I will offer you nothing “but blood, toil, tears and sweat?” Would we get many takers? It is true that many people who have questions don’t come into Church because they think that they have to have the right answers first. So a Church that built the asking of questions into its ‘main game’ would be good.
There are also a number of people for whom Christian Faith is ‘the bandage’ rather than ‘the wound’. I sometimes hear people say ‘Look, my life is so busy or chaotic or demanding in the rest of it, that when I come to Church I don’t want any more chaos, or demands. I want an hour or so of peace where I can recharge my batteries for the coming week.’ At one level this makes sense, but at another level, it describes the very ‘opiate of the people’ for which Marx disparaged religion. If religion is going to be a projection onto the heavens of our deepest needs (see Feuerbach) then God has no reality except us. God becomes as Barth objected ‘man said in a loud voice’ and so not God at all.
If God is going to be our security, then the kind of security that God gives has to transcend our picture of what kinds of things we need in order to feel secure. If God is really going to be the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and of Jesus, then the kind of security which God offers must embrace Good Friday rather than which turns away from it and hurries on to Easter Sunday. I don’t think that this message would be very popular, deep and true though it be.
I do think that there is a ‘softer’ version of it that I have spoken of before. Remember in a previous reflection, I said “I would like to put on our notice board ‘Everyone who is serious about life with God will be taken seriously here and not disappointed’ “? This is an invitation for people to join the struggle. But it is also an invitation for people to join in a kind of group where the truth of their lives can be expressed, apart from the rather broad brush strokes of a Sunday morning. The kinds of Christianity that Giles Fraser is talking about is, I think, the kind that needs groups of people to walk along side of one another so that the questions and struggles can be brought into the circle. I remember a lovely saying from a young woman who came to one of our groups. We were talking about the mustard seed parable where the mustard seed grows into a big tree. She said ‘I hope that this parish can be a tree where this bird (I) can sit’. This person already had the struggle of post natal depression. They wanted a place that would let that struggle be expressed. That is why I think that congregations that have small groups have at least the opportunity to grapple with these issues.
But there is some genuine value in the struggle too. Here is a quote I stumbled across from Alfred, lord Douglas. He says “It [poetry] is forged slowly and painfully, link by link, with blood and sweat and tears” It is true that the struggle with God sometimes wears me down, but often it is the struggle with God that sharpens up the pain so that it can be expressed. It is the struggle with God that burns away the dross and clarifies my devotion. This happened to me when my first wife left home. This I think is happening as I myself leave ‘home’ and come to a foreign land to minister. The story of that struggle is not yet over.
But what we also have to offer, in a positive sense, is not just unremitting wound and struggle, but the process of the baptismal life: the dying, the entombment and the rising. We know that this is true because it has happened to Jesus. Giles Fraser has highlighted for me that God presides over the whole thing, even the dying and the entombment.