Skip to main content

Sermon for Evening Service: 12 v 13

Reverend Robert Reiss Canon of Westminster

Sunday, 22nd October 2006

I am not sure that seeing what my friend called 12 and 13 as being in a permanent battle is necessarily the best way of looking at it. Perhaps rather than a victory of one over the other we need both. But I suspect that one of the barriers to men and women comprehending the Christian faith today is that the church can sometimes seem to suggest a rather inadequate picture of what it means to be a human being. And my friend's image, I thought at the time and still think, can help us in considering that, and so, possibly, open a door to ways in which we can understand and make our own aspects of the Christian Faith.

So, let us look at those curious symbols and take 12 first. 12, as I said, is neat, controllable, logical, ordered. It symbolises anything that makes the world coherent and manageable. Intellectually we love order, indeed it is almost the function of some people's minds to search for order and pattern so that we can understand how things are and discern a comprehensible network of cause and effect within the random and chance experience of living. By discerning that network we can in some way become master of the things that happen to us and we can feel that at least in some measure we can dictate and control our lives.

And it is not only intellectually that we might search for order, we often do so morally as well. Part of us at least wants to be told what is right and wrong and we want to live in a society where good and bad are recognised not only in us as individuals but also in the society as a whole. And so for the man or woman who is concerned to uphold standards in society and to maintain social cohesiveness the 12 world of moral order is upheld by a good deal of collective pressure protecting, as they see it, society from some of the enemies within. If you want an example of good 12 men you can find them in the Pharisees. For the best of all reasons they sought to establish an elaborate system of moral rules to protect society and to provide a moral framework within which people could live good lives. They knew from the Book of Judges what happened if 'every man did only what was right in his own eyes', they knew the destructive effect of that sort of anarchy, and so like any good, moral groups concerned to protect society from that anarchy they produced moral systems. And that proper and honest sense of moral purpose and seriousness that characterised the Pharisees in Jesus' time is present also in various ways in our world today. Morally serious people, what my friend would have called good 12 men, seeking sometimes wisely and sometimes foolishly ways of protecting society from undoubtedly destructive forces.

But standing over against that logical, ordered, collective world of 12 there is the disordered, capricious, unpredictable world of 13. It is the irrational, disturbing element that can creep up quite unexpectedly, and upset the apple cart of the 12 world. 13 stalks 12 through the world of men and women, apparently creating wholly changed circumstances that can shatter any confidence in the 12 world. At times, of course, its capricious message can be wholly destructive, the earthquake no one foretold, but at other times is can be extra-ordinarily creative, liberating men and women from what seems to be a drab 12 situation and bringing new hope. It is the 13 element that can sometimes make an individual stand up against the collective world of order and make a sort of artistic protest against the cramping, confining consequences of an over dominant 12 structure. It is the 13 world that laughter can sometimes lead us into as we observe the ludicrous pretentiousness of conforming 12 figures. It is the 13 element that brings about some co-incidence or wholly chance meeting that brings about a total reversal of direction in our lives as it opens up new and unexpected vistas. It is the 13 element that stops us being boringly predictable and makes growth and development not follow simple stereotypical paths, but enables us to be truly and fully ourselves. And so in many ways it is the antithesis of the 12 world. Where 12 finds its power in the collective 13 asserts the individual and says to hell with the rest; where 12 is liable to be moralistic 13 is libertarian and free, where 12 is bourgeois and respectable, 13 is romantic but sometimes very disreputable, where 12 is comprehensible and ordered, giving us power over our lives, 13 is mysterious and makes us realise just how contingent on other things and forces we are.

So the first conclusion I want to draw from all of this is that the fullness of what it means to be a human being will only be discovered when we know the creative power of both 12 and 13 in our own lives. The logical, ordered world of the discursive reason needs the irrational and unpredictable element of the emotions and the imagination if it is to be relieved of a certain drabness and greyness. But the trouble is that most of us find it very difficult to live with the two worlds. For the man or woman who lives wholly in the 12 world, and I suspect it is more common in men than women, the 13 world's very unpredictability means that it has to be stamped out. The unimaginative schoolmaster cannot tolerate the expression of individualism in the naughty schoolboy, the blinkered scientist refuses to look at the event that does not fit in with his system of rational causality, the government with the strong collective tradition cannot tolerate the dissident so expels him, or, even worse, locks him up in a psychiatric ward, the Catholic who happens to be authoritarian cannot stand the Luther who says 'Here I stand, I can do no other.' The Pharisee or scribe condemns the woman caught in the act of adultery and cannot see behind the sin to the person involved. Over and over again the 12 world rejects the 13 element and makes it into a scapegoat for its own inadequacy by projecting on to it all that it most fears within itself. If you want an example look at what the Christian Church has done to the devil.

But lest I seem to be favouring too much 13 at the expense of 12 let's admit that a similar thing can happen the other way round. 13 can be every bit as destructive as all pervasive 12. Rightly 13 can seek to break out of a collective pressure to confirm and assert its right to be, but if it fails to recognise the value of the ordered moral world it can easily be purely destructive. What can start out as a legitimate protest against bourgeois complacency can turn into the Red Brigade or mindless hooliganism. What can start as a legitimate desire to assert oneself against the crowd can become a new anarchic crowd that only wants to destroy. What can be a legitimate search for physical and emotional relationships outside the traditional bonds of sexual behaviour can become an unbridled and unprincipled lust, wholly destructive in its consequences. If it is the case, as I believe it is, that 12 desperately needs 13 if it is not to deny huge areas of potential creativity, so it is also the case that 13 urgently needs the restraining and controlling power of 12. Like yin and yang, in any harmonious life they need to be balanced.

Now I suppose in the Church the bigger danger is getting wholly caught up in a 12 world. People can be frightened of the unpredictable and capricious nature of 13 that they refuse to look at it and they want religion to be a bastion against it. Too much of the religion I have observed has been of that type, displaying many of the marks of an over dominant 12 world, moralistic rather than moral, emphasising the collective identity rather than the individual one, defending itself by what often seem to be rather spurious rational arguments rather than recognising that being a Christian is more like being in love that in accepting a mathematical proof. And the prevalence of that sort of religion is, I am sure, one reason why many outside the church who have an awareness of what I have called the 13 dimension find the Christian Church too impossible to stomach, for to them it seems being a Christian involves denying so much. Yet maybe that is a fundamental misunderstanding of what Christianity is about. Maybe the symbolism and power of the Gospel can only be fully apprehended and made our own when we are aware of both the 12 and 13 elements in our lives and beings, and when we can genuinely feel the tension between them. Maybe a larger understanding of what it is to be a human being if a necessary pre-condition for discovering what it is to be a Christian, for only then will we stop trying to force all our religious experience through a rationalising sieve in order to make it respectable to a 12 world. And may be further, when we have done that, we shall begin to discover how Jesus became the Christ precisely because on the cross there is the intersection of the 12 and 13 worlds, in a remarkable way transforming and redeeming them both. Perhaps it is no accident that in the way my mathematical students showed me that 13 can be laid out in an ordered way almost however you look at the image there is a cross there. But a fuller exposition of that will require another evening service.

But in a moment we shall sing a hymn that refers to that, but in a very 13 sort of way. 'I danced in the morning when the world was begun', but first let us pray.

First in our prayers this evening let us pray for those who suffer from mental illness, praying for them, for those who care for them, and for ourselves, that we may be willing to learn from suprising sources.

God of all grace, we bring to you in ur prayers those who are passing through the darkness of mental illness, or suffering from deep depression of spirit. Give sympathy, patience and gentleness to those who minister to their needs and to those near to them who share the strain of their illness; and make known your healing love and power, for the sake of Jesus Christ, our Lord.

And a prayer for ourselves, that we may learn more of God's truth.

O God, who has taught us something of your truth, teach us more, we pray. When our minds are confused, direct them; when they are obstinate, win them; when they are filled with thoughts of self, fill them with thoughts of you; and at all times give us a humble and teachable spirit; for Jesus Christ's sake. Amen

The Lord's Prayer

Twitter logo Tweet this