Sermon at the Sung Eucharist on the Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity 2018
The quiet victory of the pale Galilean.
The Reverend Mark Birch Minor Canon and Sacrist
Sunday, 9th September 2018 at 11.15 AM
Lest we forget that social media might be a force for good in the world – easily forgotten, I know – sometimes social media can prompt us towards things that are genuinely interesting an thought-provoking, rather than raising our blood pressure or causing us anxiety.
A few weeks ago I was sent a link to an article written two years ago – old news, surely – by the historian Tom Holland, entitled ‘Why I was wrong about Christianity.’ In it Holland speaks of his childhood fascination with the Classical world and its brutal vitality. He quotes the Victorian poet Algernon Charles Swinburne, who expressed regret over the Roman Empire’s capitulation to Christianity, with the sorrowful words ‘thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean.’ All the excitement and vigour of paganism replaced by the dull, cloying niceness of Christianity.
Swinburne was, of course, partly reflecting on his own nineteenth century context, and if I had to live with certain aspects of Victorian piety, I too might have found it all a bit dull and deadening. And it remains the case that people who are looking for ‘life in all its fullness’ are unlikely to come looking for it in Church.
Holland concludes his article with the reflection that, dull though they may be, the fundamental values of our culture, such as believing all lives to be of equal worth, and of it being nobler to suffer than to inflict suffering, these values are owed entirely to the triumph of Christianity, and, in the final analysis, this is the world he would rather live in than the more visceral, crueller world of antiquity.
That, of course, is not to ignore the visceral cruelty inflicted under various ‘Christian’ regimes throughout history, and within the life of the Church itself (the appalling scandal of clerical abuse being a case in point). But the abuse of children will not be brought to an end by the marginalisation or extinction of the Church – arguably it is only what the Church proclaims that makes the abuse of children (indeed the abuse of anybody) wrong in the first place. Which places an even heavier responsibility on the Church to finally get this right.
In the epistle today, St James, insisting that faith without works is dead, makes the astonishing suggestion that you might treat a poor person in dirty clothes with the same dignity you would afford to someone more gloriously arrayed – a dishevelled homeless person as you would a well-dressed celebrity. The only reason this doesn’t seem astonishing to us, as an aspiration at the very least, is because ‘thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean.’ It was the Christian gospel that made such an historically extraordinary idea seem somehow commonplace; obvious.
Swinburne puts his rueful poem on the lips of the dying 4th-century emperor Julian, known to posterity as ‘Julian the Apostate’, because he rejected his Christian upbringing in favour of a more lively Hellenic, pagan piety.
However, one aspect of the Emperor’s upbringing clearly stuck with him. He wrote to the High Priest of Galatia:
It is disgraceful that, when … the impious Galilaeans (Christians) support not only their own poor but ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us. Teach those of the Hellenic faith to contribute to public service of this sort.
While Julian goes on to suggest that care for the poor was always a pagan practice, it seems likely that it was his Christian upbringing that made this omission such a cause of shame. In philosophical terms, it seems that Julian wanted to see Christian ethics (care for the poor), but without the Christian metaphysics – all the stuff about incarnation, resurrection and the like.
Which offers an interesting parallel with our own day. Christian preachers and apologists, and Tom Holland in his article, remind us that our fundamental cultural values owe much, if not everything to Christianity. The fact that we consider them self-evident and forget where we learned them is testament to the quiet victory of the pale Galilean.
I wonder if Christ smiles at our righteous indignation when, in today’s gospel story, we are horrified at his treatment of the Syrophonoecian woman – when she begs him to heal her child, and he responds by calling her a dog, with no right to ask him for anything.
Christ might well smile, for where did we learn such righteous indignation, such staunch defence of every person’s dignity no matter their ethnicity; where did we learn it, if not from him?
But like the emperor Julian, many want to affirm Christian ethics, on the whole, but would utterly deny Christian metaphysics. Yes to treating everyone equally, but No to God, Jesus, Mary, everlasting life, and all the rest. We just don’t need all that mumbo-jumbo, they argue – we can be perfectly good without God.
At which point I find the smooth veneer of my liberal middle-class Christian niceness, begin, ever so slightly to crack.
You would surely not be surprised to hear me say that I think God and goodness have something to do with one another. You wouldn’t be surprised for me to assert that I sincerely doubt whether the dignity of every human being can be sustained by a godless metaphysics; that while science tells us vast and important things about how we are made, it cannot help us know how we should behave – and that it is the gospel, Christ indeed, who reveals to us what a fully human life looks like and Christ who calls us to share in that fullness – and that he can only reveal that fullness to us because he is himself the image of the invisible God; the utterly mysterious source of our existence.
How we treat other people cannot be separated from what they mean to us – from the meaning we discern in their existence and in ours. The metaphysics, the mumbo-jumbo, really matters.
To take an example – we are told, and many of us will know from personal experience, that teenage mental health (indeed mental health generally) is a cause for considerable concern, and appears to be worsening. Social media and the ubiquity of smartphones is probably rightly held up as one potential factor, but what makes for good mental health is a complex and subtle matter.
Those who oppose Christianity would surely have predicted that, smartphones or no, the marginalising of the Church within our culture should have led to a new flourishing in mental health. Freed from all that old religious stuff about sin, guilt and shame human beings would be set free to live freely, vividly, wildly, without guilt or fear, in a way Swinburne might have longed for. So what’s gone wrong?
We teach the young to be kind, to love one another and to love themselves, but we offer little of the metaphysical scaffolding, the theology, that might make those lovely sentiments actually mean something in the grand scheme of things. Or, worse, possibly, elements of that scaffolding may be surround their primary education – Church Schools and local Vicars valiantly doing what they can – but then it all-too-often vanishes, along with Father Christmas, in the harsher world of secondary education.
We offer less and less of the systems of confession and repentance, of reconciliation, that might help us when we find that we inevitably fail – when we are not so kind or loving, and when we find ourselves impossible to love. With no God to love us, to forgive us, to accept us, loving ourselves becomes nothing more than a choice, a psychological trick, a quick dose of CBT. If we are not ultimately loved then it is surely just as logical to hate as to love ourselves?
To be clear, the Church has not always been good at promoting this metaphysical scaffolding, these systems of reconciliation that might serve mental health and human flourishing. That is, you might think, the most ridiculous understatement – put it down to being British – but it is the Church that has the metaphysical resources to support the ethical principles that most of us would want to live by. Without the metaphysics, we risk the ethics becoming incoherent, weakened and no longer as self-evident as we once thought them to be. If faith without works is dead, as St James insists, works without faith might prove to be equally ultimately unviable.
There is clearly work to be done, and, as a Church, we begin very much on the back-foot – a position largely of our own making. But while our confidence in the institution may justifiably wax and wane, our confidence in what we have received could afford to be much, much stronger. We have precisely the mumbo jumbo that the world needs; upon which all the best aspects of our civilisation depend. It may not be flashy, sexy or alluring, it may seem to be old news, but it remains good.