The Reverend Professor Vernon White, Canon in Residence
'What is real wellbeing of the mind? I was asked. In terms of the great hymn we've just sung, what is it to praise God with the mind?
Over the past three weeks I've been suggesting an answer. Wellbeing of the mind is not just serenity, as current fashions suggest, nor is it static certainty. A healthy Christ-centred mind is a more open, exploring, responsive mind, willing to change in the light of the reality we encounter. It's a mind willing to explore the bafflements of belief and faith, see where they lead rather than retreating from them into merely formless spiritualities on the one hand or closed certainties of fundamentalism on the other hand. Yet with this passion for exploring truth, it is also humble, willing to admit it can never wholly possess the truth, get everything right. This mind is not necessarily clever or complicated. But it is necessarily a mind of integrity: honest, open to what is really there, and willing to accept we need help from others and God in the process. That is what I find in the minds of great formative biblical figures of faith. Today, finally, I simply want to offer reflections on why I believe this sort of wellbeing of our mind matters so much.
It matters firstly because our minds are not just our minds. How we think is not just how we think. It is also who we are and how we act. Our thinking, feeling, and acting are inseparable—this is ancient Hebrew wisdom. When Jesus called us to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, strength, he was expressing exactly this composite nature of our deep selves. When St Paul says 'let that mind be in you which was in Christ', he meant let all Christ's being and action be part of you, not just his thoughts. Much contemporary philosophy and psychology makes a similar point. Our thinking, feeling, and acting, are not discrete sequential things, but integral to each other. So never think that what we think is only what we think. At some level it is what we feel and do, just as what we do at some level shows what we really think.
This may not always be apparent in routine, mundane life. Day-to-day we can seem to play with thoughts we don't feel deeply or directly act on, flickering thoughts which glance off the surface of our minds like light playing on water. But don't be deceived! Even these connect in some way with what's under the surface, how we really think and act. And when we hit challenging situations which require us to act, rather than just ride them routinely, then we find this out: we discover just how much our reaction is shaped by our underlying thinking, and we discover, in Dietrich Bonhoeffer's memorable phrase, whether that thinking has made us 'serviceable' in what we do.
Bonhoeffer himself was actually an extraordinary example of this. As you may know, he was a German pastor during the Second World War. When that crisis tested him, it was his fundamentally open, honest, exploring mind which not only enabled him to see what was going on (when others didn't), but which also permitted him to change his mind, to revoke his previous pacifist principles and join the active resistance to Hitler—a real integrity of an open mind, spirit, in action. In his own words written in prison: 'it's not the mind of a genius or adroit tactician that we need…what we need are spiritual resources of openness, candour, honesty with ourselves.' That's what will carry us through any situation, big or small.
It matters, too, not just for personal integrity, but for social wellbeing. This sort of integrity of mind is a vital part of a Christian counter-narrative to those current global challenges we face which are a retreat from the mind; either to unthinking pluralism, formless spiritualities with no beliefs, or to the closed certainties of fundamentalism (religious or political). How are they countered? Especially, how are those dangerous fundamentalisms countered? Occasionally, rarely, hard power may have to be used, as a stop-gap, to restrain them—with IS now, just as with Hitler then, as Bonhoeffer realized. But in the long term, as we surely all know, hard power is never enough. What it does need is confidence in this different story: that is, showing how a political ethos or religious faith can be lived out with just as much firmness and fervour with an open, questing, humble mind, as with a closed mind; showing that the passion of intellectual integrity can be even greater than the passion of intellectual dogmatism, as well as healthier. It is hard to over-estimate the importance of this. Only by rekindling confident allegiance to open, life-giving narratives of faith can the life-denying fundamentalist dogmas be really deflated.
It also matters, finally, simply because this sort of integrity of mind truly is part of our faith. It's not just an invention of the enlightenment. It really does lie at the heart of Christianity. I pointed to this at the outset three weeks ago by describing how Jesus and Paul both exemplified it. But think too how it also sits right at the centre of the dramatic structure of the Gospel, not just in its individual characters. Remember the pivotal scene of Jesus standing before Pilate, and Pilate asks 'what is truth?' The drama gives no answer in dogmatic form. What it gives instead is simply the figure of Christ. He is the truth, not dogma. Truth lies in this person, in his lived life of self-giving love, and in teachings which were as much in parables as in propositions. The Truth, in other words, lies in a Way and a Life, not just in a doctrine. Which is why so much of the Bible itself (unlike the Koran) is written in narrative, describing a life to be lived and explored, not just as a set of dictats to be imposed on the mind.
So we should be confident in open, thoughtful, faith. I will not call it moderate religion, because that sounds half-hearted. But we could call it mindful religion. Be confident in it because it's something we and the world badly need, and because it is authentic faith. Two days ago the slaughter on a Tunisian beach was wreaked by the closed mind of Islamism. Only relatively few miles away, the Kairouan Mosque was historically a centre of mindful Islam, open-minded thoughtful religion, sacred and secular study. Geographically such a short distance from each other. Ideologically, morally, spiritually, worlds apart. There is no question which sort of world we must support, in any religion, 'if that same mind is in us which was in Christ...'