Event Name Sermon given at Matins on the Fourth Sunday of Epiphany 2016
Start Date 31st Jan 2016 10:00am

The Reverend Professor Vernon White, Canon in Residence

If you rise at dawn in an Indian village of South America you may see a man already up, standing on a hillside with arms outstretched. He is making the sun rise. His arms summon the sun and hold it up. That is what he believes and so that is what he does. Travel on and you may meet dedicated Christian missionaries who also raise their hands in prayer and praise, and in lifting up of a cup of wine. They believe that this helps make something happen in their personal relationship with God. That is what they believe and so that is what they do. Travel even further into the same country and you may meet yet another set of dedicated people. These people lift up guns, not hands. For they believe, by the laws of social necessity, that the poverty of villagers stripped of their lands will only end when they are empowered to seize their means of production, by force if necessary. That, as Marxists, is what they believe so that is what they do.

What people really believe in (their theology and ideology),and what people do, are inextricably intertwined. Real belief really shapes what we do—and so incidentally it follows that what we actually do reveals what we really believe. Philosophers call it the extrovert theory of action: actions reveal our real beliefs and priorities, even more than what we say we believe. To find out what really matters most to me don't just listen to what I say matters most, inspect my diary or my shopping bag (in other words what I actually do with my time and money).

So, real beliefs and action are inseparable. And that's why it certainly matters to have some real belief, for if there is no deep belief in us to of any significance, then by the same token there can be no action of real significance in our life. It will mean what we do is only driven by passing whim, the instinct of the moment, directionless. As Seneca said, 'if a man knows not what harbour he seeks, any wind will be the right wind'. Or as a late-modern Seneca might say even more radically: 'no wind will be right'—because without any belief there is no measure of right, and all we do will just be as shallow as, I fear, some bits of my diary and shopping bag actually are!

Of course that doesn't mean any religious belief or ideology is better than none, just to give direction, a sense of rightness. In the light of the 20th century history of tyrannical state ideologies, and our 21st century history of tyrannical religious ideologies, it is blindingly obvious that not all action is right just because it's belief-driven. I do not accept the belief of an Indian that his prayers makes the sun rise just because he's sincere; and I refute utterly any political or religious ideology which demonizes and kills others indiscriminately, whether Marxist or Jihadist—even though they do generally act from deep belief.

What it does mean is that it's all the more important to endorse and celebrate confidently the best and truest beliefs which will give a true direction, to ensure we do not have an ideological or religious vacuum in this world - leaving it just as either a vacuous world of shallow lives, or a vulnerable world ripe for take-over by the worst ideologies or religions.

This is exactly what I've been trying to do in these January sermons: celebrate the best aspects of belief, especially christian belief, as gifts to the whole world. In particular the sort of belief, rooted in the doctrine of God as creator and redeemer of all, which insists on the equal value of all kinds of people equally; and on the value of all ordinary life (not just religious life): the sort of belief of that Old Testament prophecy of the first reading today, perfectly embodied later in Christ, which 'does justice, loves kindness, and walks humbly with God'. (Note those strong verbs 'do, love, walk', underlining the way faith is indeed inextricably expressed in action).

What today I finally want to note, though, alongside all that, is something else. Something about christian faith at its best which may be even more important; something in a different category altogether; something which isn't really about its belief system or even its moral framework - hinted at in that last phrase 'walk humbly with your God'. Something more like a personal relationship. A relationship in which we experience another person's love acceptance, forgiveness. A relationship within which moral actions and theological beliefs do arise, but they're not required as prior conditions for the relationship because this relationship is not a social construction of belief, but something we humbly receive in an experience of grace. A relationship which is a movement of the Spirit we usually call simply 'faith'.

I believe this disposition of faith, this movement of the Spirit, may actually be found, in some form, within many religions, and in people of no religion too (though found there only because of God in Christ). I know it's found within Christianity. But wherever found and however named, the main point is that this faith is not quite the same thing as any religion. And that's why it's actually greatest gift of all of Christ to the world—because it gives us a place to stand beyond the constructions of any religion or ideology, as well within them; a place, therefore, from which we can critique any ideology or religion (including a self-critique, a critique of Christianity), as well as receiving the direction to our life that deep belief does give.

We need deep belief to inform our action, to give us purpose and moral goals. But even more we need this humble walking with our God: a relationship with the divine other, not just an ideology about Him, in which God keeps us truly open to His Spirit, not closed within our own often flawed systems. And perhaps that's what we should celebrate and commend above all…

'He has told you O mortal what is good. What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God…'

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