Margaret is a committed and faithful ‘8 o’clocker’, and despite her free church leanings usually manages to cope with my Anglo-Catholic excesses. She is also one of the driving forces behind the church-led Barton Food Bank and is regularly appalled at the deprivation and suffering endured by those who seek its help. Great, then, was her embarrassment when at the 8.00 mass a few weeks ago she found herself reading out the words of the Epistle, ‘Anyone unwilling to work should not eat’.
We Christians are all sophisticated enough these days to recognise our moral superiority over the rest of unenlightened humanity. The Jubilee movement, Fair Trade, even (for Neanderthals like me) ‘Faith in the City’ are constant reassurances that ethically we are on the side of the angels. We believe.
Uncomfortable though it is to recall the widespread Christian support for slavery, John Wesley’s enthusiastic endorsement of capital punishment and the solid Church backing given to many an unpleasant regime and policy, we who know God to be a Guardian reader who sources the ingredients for the Messianic Banquet ethically, stand above that misguided history.
The problem is, of course, what is our security for that belief? The philosophical debate on whether there can be a morality independent of a deity rages on, but wherever we stand in that discussion, the easy equating of ‘Faithful’ with ‘Moral’ often passes unexamined. Our ancestors in the faith did not believe that they were in any sense unjust, and yet we are astonished or repelled by their lack of vision, their obvious feet of clay.
We all enjoy the ‘brood of vipers’ reference in the Advent 2 Gospel reading, as the venomously powerful get a verbal flogging. We may even identify other bits of the Church with that description: on a good day even accept that there’s a poison within ourselves. However, when I consider that image, I see also a knotted herpetological tangle, snakes coiled and curled around one another, impenetrable, self-sufficient, self-absorbed, self-embracing.
The mathematician Kurt Gödel established his ‘incompleteness theorem’, whose insights have been taken into other disciplines. Simply put, it is impossible for a line of reasoning properly to critique itself because any flaws in the system are invisible from within it. It can be an admirable line of defence for theists against arid rationalism, but we are not immune: what if even our Christian thirst for justice is a selective reading and favouring of our own prejudices and proof texts, be they Bible or Blog? It’s said that the verdict of history is often, ‘How could they not see that?’ where ‘that’ is an issue so vast that no-one at the time recognised it was there.
There is no simple resolution of this, and certainly one is not to be found in surrendering our own insights in favour of another unverifiable world-view. But a tradition running from John to Pope Francis reminds us that the word of the Lord may sometimes come from outside our own tightly-bound communities of the like-minded. There is a world beyond our serpentine knot which we forget at our peril.
David Rowett is vicar of Barton-on-Humber in the diocese of Lincoln.