The Reverend Professor Vernon White, Canon in Residence
'What is wellbeing of the mind?' I was asked. Where can it be found? It lies, I suggested last week, not just in serenity and settledness, but also in openness and exploration, in our willingness if necessary to change our mind. To illustrate this I cited the examples of St Paul, a contemporary neuro-scientist, and Jesus himself. The Spirit of God was at work in their openness, their willingness to change their mind, rather than just resting in their prejudices or preconceived ideas. Only Jesus demonstrated this openness to perfection. But we can all share this Spirit to some extent, and that is where true wellbeing lies. In other words, the contemporary tendency to see wellbeing of the mind just as absolute serenity, static certainty, zen-like calm, isn't the real goal: wellbeing for faith lies in a more dynamic journey of the mind and spirit. 'Midway in the journey of life', said Dante, 'we find ourselves…'
However, there is another ingredient in this too, which is what I want to say more about this week: this true wellbeing of mind does also mean being realistic about our limits. In our journeying to the truth, we need to recognize we will not reach this truth all the time. We will not always get things absolutely right all the time. So we shouldn't worry inordinately about doing so.
Perhaps I should confess straightaway: I do tend to worry inordinately. In public speaking, even private conversation, I worry about whether what I preach, teach, say, is wholly true. I worry even more if I'm expressing something in print or on the web. Anything visible in text or print has that curiously fixed quality which makes you feel you can be held to account much more definitely. Is what I've just written not only comprehensible and responsible, but really true?
This worry, I suppose, might be healthy up to a point. Bearing in mind the entirely mendacious, irresponsible, vicious way the web especially can be used by people with no worries about truth, some worry probably is in order (scripture does after all repeatedly warn us to be careful what we say). But—inordinate worry? Over-conscientious worry? That's different. That means we're taking ourselves too seriously, and viewing reality too naively, formulaically, as if this world is susceptible to absolutely right or wrong answers. In fact reality is simply not often like that. Whether we are trying to take a view on voluntary euthanasia, social equality, freedom of speech, whether a close friend should stay in a destructive relationship, the nature of God himself/herself—in fact almost anything of any real importance in life—these things have a density and complexity which just does not permit one-dimensional crystal clear right or wrong answers. Wellbeing of the mind, for faith, means accepting this. It means accepting we have limits in our capacity fully to grasp God's world and God's ways. 'God' ways are higher than our ways', said Isaiah; 'How unsearchable his judgements, inscrutable his ways', said St Paul…
So what faith directs us to is always a more humble approach. It reminds us of these limits. And above all, because of these personal limitations, it requires us to be willing to listen out for truth with and through others; to be willing to accept that truth often emerges best through hearing different interpretations jostling together—what's called the dynamic of dialectic.
This is certainly how truth has best emerged in the long history of Christian faith. The wellbeing of the church's collective mind has usually been best expressed when it has allowed differences, refused to settle just in one clear-cut official answer to all its questions. That's why pre-reformation catholic Christendom needed the difference and dissent of reformation to expose how its truth had become warped when fossilized in the dominant culture of its time. It was the same post reformation. The reformed German Church of the 1930s needed the difference and dissent of its confessing wing to expose the way its truth had become warped within the dominant Nazi culture of that time.
This need for dialectic, dissent, alternatives, goes right back to the Council of Jerusalem at the beginning of the Church when Peter needed Paul's different unsettling view to see how the Gospel could be for Gentiles not just for Jews. Just as, later, alternative voices within the churches were needed to challenge its acceptance of the status quo of slavery and patriarchy.
It seems, therefore, that this is the main way that God reveals truth in our dense, complex world: in the jostling of different views, through time. Put another way, both dialectic and narrative (the tensions of different views and the continuing story of truth) are not just an inevitable or even regrettable fact of life: they are an intended, positive, agent of God's revelation. And that is why we shouldn't expect always to get things absolutely right just on our own, at our own point in time…
This doesn't mean that nothing is ever clear and everything is provisional. There is a unique, definitive source and centre of truth in Jesus Christ. But it does mean that this source of truth in Christ is not always like the truth that the discourse of some bloggers, politicians, and preachers imply. It's not a commodity we can possess completely in our personal possession over against others, because it always comes in a journey with others, through time, and also because this centre of truth in Christ is not in any case an 'it' to be grasped at all but a person to relate to; it is a living person, not a proposition. So it is in a sure relationship with this person that we really find our wellbeing of mind, not in the static certainty of a set of propositions.
'Midway in the journey of life' as Dante said, we can indeed 'find ourselves', our true wellbeing. But remember this always lies in a continuing journey, not an arrival—in a journey best undertaken with others; and above all, with Christ himself.