Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 4th August 2013

4 August 2013 at 10:00 am

The Reverend Professor Vernon White, Canon in Residence

Morality, wonder, failure, pleasure.  Four basic human experiences, woven deeply into the texture of human life: four experiences which can also draw us closer to God - and so four subjects I will be looking at in these Matins services in August. Beginning this morning with morality - that simple sense we have that some things are right, others wrong; some good, others bad. It’s not a sense we always act on, nor one we always agree about, but it is a sense that almost everyone has - except a very few who are pathologically a-moral. It’s a unique and powerful sense. It’s something that, although it may come to us through evolutionary process or social conditioning, cannot be reduced to them. It’s more mysterious and more profound than that. It has a sense of authority over us, but also a sense of attraction. It’s like meeting a strong sense of someone else’s definite will and desire. And that, I believe, is just what it is: it is a close encounter with the very mind of God…

But that is to anticipate. First, what about this fact that, although it can feel so authoritative, we don’t always agree about what it is saying? Perhaps especially now in so-called post-modernity - moral disagreement is rife. The examples are obvious. For some the sanctity of heterosexual marriage and stable family life matters hugely; it is, for them, a clear expression of the will of God for healthy social order - an order they see threatened by casual relationships, gay marriage, frequent family breakdown; yet, for others, what matters more are ideals of personal freedom and fulfilment, whatever sexual or social form that takes - and that is what is sacred. Or else there are the different views we have about how much value should be given to different forms of life: the human foetus, the comatose, the dolphin, and so on. Or there are the differences we have about the use of bio-technology and genetic manipulation - whether or not we should use these techniques to secure better health, or better character. In these and other matters we find it hard to agree. What’s more, we can often find no common basis in either reason or religion by which we can come to agreement. This sense of moral confusion, disagreement, pluralism, is not unique to our age, but it is very marked.

Does it matter? Yes - up to a point. Beyond a certain point society becomes unsustainable without at least some agreed moral framework. It flies apart and fragments. We as individuals can also become unstable. If we experience conflicting values in our own lives - one set of values with mates at work, another at home with our family, another in the virtual world we inhabit, another at church - it is hard to develop a consistent character and personal identity. So we personally, not just society, become stressed and strained: we too can fly apart and fragment. This in turn makes some want to withdraw from the confusion and take refuge in a community of like-minded people, a sub-group which shares and reinforces just one way of thinking - the temptation of fundamentalist sects of all kinds, religious or political. It is superficially attractive because it offers cohesion and certainty and clarity, more red meat in our morality. But of course it is not really a solution.  It fails to acknowledge what St John’s Gospel calls the ‘light which enlightens every man’, what St Pauls calls ‘the law written on the heart of Gentiles’: in other words, it cuts us off from God’s wisdom given to others who are different; it seals us off in a sense of self- righteousness in which neither God nor others can reach us. So yes: our moral disagreement does matter: the reality of it can confuse us, and pull us part; and the fear of it can drive us into ghettoes. And in that sense I suppose you could say our moral sense can actually lead us away from God…

Nonetheless, we don’t need to become pre-occupied with these disagreements - because in fact there is something else about our moral sense which is actually far more important than our search for agreement and unanimity. Its deepest impulse and call on us is not to agree, but to live together with respect with our differences. This doesn’t mean diluting our moral sense, as if it doesn’t matter. It is simply recognizing that it is love, not unanimity, which matters most. Love, respect, justice, are the most authoritative demands of morality, with or without agreement. That is certainly the Christian understanding: the highest virtues in biblical ethics are love and justice, not uniformity or having to agree about common rules. And that certainly does bring us close to God, even when we disagree: for God Himself is love…

But then there is something else too which also brings us closer to God. And here I return to where I began - to that unique and mysterious sense of authority this moral sense has for us, its intensity, the unique kind of push and pull it exercises on us - something which doesn’t seem to be just some social or natural conditioning, but goes deeper. This is often clearest when we do actually agree about things. For example, take those experiences when we encounter so something obviously and utterly evil, that there can be no disagreement: something like the malicious and gratuitous hurting of vulnerable young people which we’ve been hearing of in the news this week in the case of the young boy tortured and abused in his own home. With such things, we recoil, we are repelled, with a weight of feeling which is unique, which demands its own categories and language: we see these sorts of acts not just as inexpedient, or stupid, but precisely wrong, evil. Likewise, think of those obviously and utterly good acts about which we all agree: Christ-like acts, like those long term self-sacrificing heroic lives of love of many unknown carers up and down the country. We are moved and attracted by these in the way we are moved by great beauty, yet even more so because, again, they evoke in us a weight of feeling which is unique and needs its own language: we see these good acts not just a disguised form of expediency or social contract or pleasure, nor just as some sublimated evolutionary by-product for social survival, but as something qualitatively different: they are morally good. Now - it is precisely in this unique character of morality, felt especially in good and evil acts at their starkest, that we see and experience the personal nature of God’s will. It is like feeling the push and pull of Someone’s strong desires and wishes, because that is just what it is!

Of course we still don’t have to obey: that is our God-given freedom, and none of us do or can obey fully. Of course culture, circumstance, sin, distort our sense of it so we can mistake it: and that’s why we have differences and disagreements. But my simple point now is this: the nature of God Himself does still reach us through it, in a very direct way.

So - do not be paralysed by plurality in the moral world. Do not retreat into the shelter of a sect. Simply rejoice and wonder instead at the persistence and uniqueness of this moral energy in us all, for what it really is: a sign, sacrament ,and close encounter with God Himself…

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