The Rt. Revd. Richard Chartres
Reading: Psalm 19 — The Heavens declare the Glory of God
WE are so fortunate to live in a beautiful part of the country where Spring glimpsed though our windows can alleviate the oppression of the current lockdown.
One of the priests of our English Church, the poet and mystic Thomas Traherne declared that “You never enjoy the world aright till the sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens and crowned with the stars … Till you can sing and rejoice and delight in God, as misers do in gold and kings in sceptres, you never enjoy the world.”
Genuine religion arises from Annunciation — being addressed from beyond oneself.
So often, of course, we make an idol of some projection of our cravings or fantasies. Even those who profess to be atheists constantly refer themselves to some idea or ambition which they find attractive or fearsome — the perfect body; riches; or power. It’s just part of being human. At worst, when bruised, the ego surreptitiously re-ascends by worshipping some projection of its rage or lust for power. Idolatry of this kind is only too visible, in a lethal form, in the conflicts in the Middle East.
In the Bible, as well as constant denunciations of the danger of making gods in our own image, there are a series of annunciations.
In the Paradise Garden, God calls “Adam, where are you?” Then Abraham is instructed to “leave your household gods and begin your journey to a land you do not know.” Moses is commanded to put off his shoes, for “this is holy ground.” He was addressed from the bush which burned but was not consumed. The boy Samuel was called when he was sleeping in the Temple, at a time when the rumour of God was very faint. Then – supremely — the Angel of the Lord addressed the Blessed Virgin, “Hail, Mary, full of grace: the Lord is with thee.”
The bible is full of annunciations, and God speaks through His Word and through His Book of Nature. Almost every day we are being addressed by the glory and the distress of the earth.
The Bible sets the human story and the sacrifice of Christ against a huge cosmic canvas. In our generation, we have been given a vivid account of the cosmic drama by contemporary science. The drama seems to have five acts.
In a series of irreversible transformations, the history of the universe has unfolded from its beginnings about 13.7 billion years ago. Act I is the galactic story. Act II is the formation of planet Earth, just far enough away from our sun to avoid frying but not so far as to become a sterile rock. Act III is the story of the birth of life on Earth, with Act IV concerned with the story of homo sapiens as we emerged, some 160,000 years ago, from Africa to colonise the globe.
The evolutionary story has a material and physical aspect but also a psycho-spiritual aspect. We are, as the Bible and Darwin agree, creatures of the dust –- star dust, in fact; we are participants in a web of life.
The problem is that the apprehension of knowledge, as it has developed in the Western world — a knowledge which has delivered such great power over the earth — has been generated from an “objective” way of observing the world which has tended to divorce us from a sense of our inner connectedness with nature. Dominance has been substituted for interconnectedness, and we have come to see the earth in a God-forsaken way, as a mere theatre for human desire and exploitation, with a diminished awareness that our well-being is bound up with the well-being of the earth.
The consequences of this way of relating to the world around us are brilliantly described in one of the most important — and neglected –books of the first decade of this century, Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and his Emissary.
Act V of our five act drama is just beginning, and it will decide whether humanity is yet another dead end in the unfolding story of life or whether promise will predominate and peril will be surmounted. The President of the Royal Society recently published a book about the prospects for the human race worryingly entitled Our Final Century –- without a question mark (although he has ascribed the omission to a publisher’s error).
Shall we develop the wisdom to channel the power we have acquired from the scientific knowledge and discoveries of the 20th century? Where indeed, to quote T.S. Eliot, is “the wisdom we have lost in knowledge and the knowledge we have lost in information”?
In the Book of Revelation, great multitudes — from all nations and kindreds, people and tongues — stand before the throne and cry out “Salvation and Deliverance belong to God!”. Too often, we have seen salvation exclusively in terms of individuals. That is, of course, vital but the Bible shows us the individual person realistically as someone always involved in relationships with other human beings and with the world of nature. We can perish in a world and a human community that are atomised, but we are saved together.
At the end of The Divine Comedy, Dante describes his vision of divine reality: “all the scattered leaves of the universe bound together in one volume by love”.
Holy Week reveals the plot-line of Act 5 as the old order of selfishness, sin, and death is overcome in an act of self-sacrificing love on the Cross.