The Reverend Professor Vernon White, Canon in Residence
The challenge came to me from someone living in a particularly fast moving world of work, daily having to surf the seething, restless energies of information technology, constantly having to note, process, select, a near infinity of information, opinions, views: 'What would you say is wellbeing of the mind?', he asked. I had no immediate or easy answer. But it seemed an important question. So in this series of sermons at Matins in June I want to reflect on it: what is wellbeing for the christian mind, and where is it to be found?
I want to begin with something counter-intuitive. Wellbeing in its current, fashionable, secular, form usually means a state of serenity, stability, balance - but I want to suggest something rather different, something more dynamic. A phrase from Dante's inferno prompted me. 'Midway in the journey of our life/ I came to myself…' In other words, in the life of faith, wellbeing isn't found just in some still point, some stasis of the mind, but in the midst of a journey of mind and spirit - it is found in openness, exploration, journeying, even restlessness. 'Midway in the journey of our life…I came to myself'.
This phrase came to my mind probably because it's an echo of one the most famous of Jesus's stories. The story of the prodigal son. It is the story of someone who 'came to himself', found his true wellbeing, through an inner and outward journey. In his case, it was a journey from self-seeking and selfish fantasies to a specific reconciliation with his Father whom he had previously taken for granted. True wellbeing came to him when he was willing to make this journey in his mind and spirit. It came to him when he was open to seeing a different truth about his life, relationships, circumstances, rather than being simply stuck in his existing self.
This need for an open, exploring mind isn't meant as a charter for never having any settled convictions, or settled relationships. Far from it. As G.K. Chesterton said, the point of having an open mind is much like having an open mouth at a meal: the point is to close it on something good once you've found it. I agree. But the fact remains that we only ever find and taste what is really good and true by being open to it in the first place. And even when we've found it, we only discover its full taste and its full implications if we are willing not to swallow it instantly, but chew on it, explore its taste fully. So in that sense we do need an ever open mind and spirit…
This sort of constantly open journeying is, I suggest, exactly what we find in the great biblical figures of faith. Jesus himself journeyed with an open mind. As fully human, as a Jew of his time, he grew up in this world with inherited cultural prejudices, predispositions, not least about Gentiles and women. This is not in itself a sin, of course. Sin arises only if we fail to grow out of our inherited prejudices when given the chance to do so. And that is exactly where Jesus did not fail. Instead, it was precisely his open, journeying, mind which ensured he did not rest in prejudice, but moved beyond it. You may recall his encounter with a Gentile woman begging him to heal her daughter. In spite of his inherited predisposition to dismiss her just as a Gentile woman, Jesus's fundamental openness of mind and spirit meant he was not stuck in that: he eventually saw beyond it and came to see her real faith and humanity. That was how he demonstrated his human perfection: not in stasis, but precisely in his willingness to change…
Equally telling, there is the example of Paul. He too journeyed with an open mind, moving from his prejudices to seeing the equality of all people, Jews and Gentiles, women and men, slave and free. Less perfectly in his case. He did fail to work out its full implications (especially with women) - just as much of the church since has also failed, until recently. But at least Paul did begin the trajectory. From his Damascus road conversion onwards, he at least tried to work out what it might mean to accept both Gentiles and Jews equally. In one great passage in his letters he wrestled with this new truth like Jacob wrestling with an angel: he comes away intellectually limping; he still hasn't fully understood - 'How unsearchable God's judgements, how inscrutable his ways!' he cries. Yet because this is a cry of praise, not just puzzlement, that cry is a sign that this exploration of mind and spirit is truly of God.
I see this just as much in people with no explicit faith. I recently read, for example, an extraordinary account of an agnostic neuro-scientist tracking how ideas of truth, beauty, love or God arise in our consciousness (the book is called, simply, 'Consciousness'). On the one hand his open exploration shows him that these ideas could all be tracked merely as neurological events of the brain; reducing their meaning just to subjective fantasy. On the other hand, that very same open exploration leads him to acknowledge that these ideas appear to have a unique, unaccountable, quality in the mind, not reducible just to brain events like any other. This journey in his mind has, as yet, led him to no final conclusion about the actual existence of God, truth, or beauty. Yet in the very integrity and honesty of the exploration, we sense his mind is one in which God's Spirit is already at home and at work. So it comes as no surprise when he ends his book quoting a psalm from the very faith he thought he had forever abandoned: 'the mind which thou dids't mould out of dust does have consort with things eternal'.
Jesus, perfectly - Paul and a modern professor, imperfectly - they all show the Spirit of God leading them into truth in the journeying of their minds and spirits. They show true wellbeing more in openness to truth than in the search for serenity.
To be sure, serenity of a sort, a peace which the world cannot give, may still follow. But that will be a gift on the way, not the goal. Of the goal itself, more in the weeks to come…