The Grand Perhaps

During the summer, I spent a few days with a friend in Keswick in the Lake District. Those of you who have visited the Lake District will know that it is aptly named – it tends to rain a lot – so we went to the theatre a lot!

One of the plays we saw opened with a fictional professor reporting on the outcome of a piece of fictional research. A number of eminent academics across a variety of disciplines had been asked to come together to debate and discuss and select one word which characterised – typified – all human knowledge and understanding.

I can’t now remember which disciplines were represented but no doubt there was a chemist or two, an astronomer, a lawyer, an economist, a couple of Vice Principals and I suspect all the ‘ologies’ – biology, geology anthropology – and I’d like to think maybe a couple of the arts. So they duly met, and over their cappuccinos they argued and debated and eventually came up with one word which characterised all human knowledge. By this time the audience was all agog! And the word they came up with was ‘perhaps’!

It’s an intriguing idea. I was sitting in my house earlier in the year, listening to a lecturer in physics from Glasgow University. Yet again we were discussing the apparent discrepancy between science and religion, reason and emotion, faith and belief? Unbelief? Disbelief? We had come through the big bang, the first few minutes, the Goldilocks theory, and skirted round black holes and multi-verses and here we were at the end of the evening about to plunge into Genesis!

The physics lecturer said that he was about to show us (through PowerPoint!!!) a diagram of what scientists currently believe about the origins of the universe, the theory of evolution within our world. ‘But before I do so’, he said, in a Eureka moment, ‘I should warn you that by next week all this might change. Even now someone might be writing a learned article for Scientific American which will at least amend if not transform all our ideas. Perhaps from NASA or the Hadron Collider in Switzerland or even Jodrell Bank.

And, of course, that’s right! Just when we think we’ve got things sorted along comes a Galileo or an Einstein or a Darwin or an Adam Smith or Martin Luther or Marie Stopes or Rosa Parks or even Jane Austen, Beethoven, a Michelangelo – and upsets all we thought was the right way of knowing – of doing things. Imagine sailing with Vasco da Gama on a round the world voyage when you know, you’re absolutely certain, that the world is flat! Self-evidently the world is flat. Perhaps!

Of course, the writer of the play was not the first to come up with the notion of ‘perhaps’. Robert Browning got there before her. Browning wrote a long poem called ‘Bishop Blougram’s Apology’ The word ‘apology is not used here in the sense of saying ‘sorry’ or asking forgiveness but in the sense of a ‘defence of’, an ‘argument for’ and being a bishop his ‘apology’ is a defence of, or an argument for the Christian faith.

The Bishop has the misfortune to be to be living in the 1850s. If he had been living 300 years before no one would have questioned his certainty. If he’d been living 100 years later no one would have questioned his doubts.
But here he is in the 1850s when the whole edifice of the Christian faith is crumbling at its foundations – and bringing down the Christian church in its wake.

Perhaps the most significant issue was the work of David Strauss, a German theologian, who applied the same principles of historical research – the use of internal and external evidence to verify primary source material – to the Biblical texts. He showed that, far from the Bible being the inspired Word of God (come down on Pickering and Inglis rice paper as we used to say) he was able to point to discrepancies and contradictions and to indicate that the Gospels, for example, had been written sometime after the death of Jesus and were at the very least, open to question. In particular he suggested that the miracles should be seen, not as having literally taken place, but as myths – embodiments of eternal truths.

The book was so revolutionary that the Earl of Salisbury said that it was ‘the most pestilential book ever vomited out of the jaws of hell’. If the very documents on which our faith is based are shown to be inaccurate and contradictory – we either have to question our faith – or find a new way of interpreting them.

Furthermore, scientific discoveries were throwing doubt on the Bible’s explanations of how the world and its life came into being. Interestingly, Christians could accept that the world wasn’t created in 4004 BC and they didn’t really have a problem with the idea that the world was not created as it is. Any old farmer could tell you that!

The problem lay in the driving force behind evolution – the survival of the fittest. That a loving God could create millions of …. whatever …. and only a few would make it. What a waste of life! And the few that made it were the strongest, the most intelligent, had the biggest brains, could fight better. That’s not what we thought God was about.

As Tennyson wrote

‘We trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation’s final law –
But Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine shriek’d against this creed.

I falter where I firmly trod,
And stretch lame hands of faith and grope…… ’

‘I falter where I firmly trod’. We’re still suffering from the after-shock of all this– we can hardly imagine how our fellow Christians were feeling, rooted in their certainty, – 30 years before this church was built! Not only was it the stuff of academic debate in our great universities it was discussed in every Bible Study, Lent study, Saturday Soirees, and over Sunday morning coffee. It also raged through newspapers and magazines. It was not a good time to be a bishop!

And one day the bishop reads an attack on himself in a magazine where a journalist – Gigadibs (which is a play on words meaning ‘a fishing expedition!) accuses him of gross hypocrisy. He despises him… the Bishop can’t possibly still believe in the Christian faith and yet he goes on drawing his salary and living in a magnificent palace. And so, the Bishop invites Gigadibs to dinner.

The poem is what we call in the trade ‘a dramatic monologue’. That is, we don’t hear what the other person is arguing, we only hear the Bishop’s defence but from his answers we can guess what Gigadibs is arguing.

• It’s 1900 hears since anything happened! Nineteen hundred years since the last divine revelation. And it clearly doesn’t work now. Not a lot of dead walking about!
• And you’ve heard all the arguments – from theologians for heaven’s sake. They’re supposed to be on your side.
• And then there’s the scientific arguments.
• But worst of all is your hypocrisy. You live in a magnificent palace: the beautiful architecture. the intricate tapestries, marble floors, and the sheer size of the Bishop’s living quarters. And look at the dining table – fine lace, crystal glasses, the finest of food and wine. You don’t exactly live the way Jesus of Nazareth taught us. You’re a hypocrite!

And the Bishop replies:
• Yes, it has been a long time – we thought Jesus was coming back. And the church hasn’t exactly covered herself in glory over the last 1900 years. And in that time we’ve done some terrible things – no wonder nobody trusts us.
• And yes, of course, we have to accept what theologians and scientists are telling us.
• And yes, worst of all, I don’t live as Jesus, standing on a hillside telling people that God loves them, taught us.
• I am a hypocrite.

And Gigadibs thinks Yes! Gotcha!

And then the bishop goes on, – just when we are most doubtful

………………… there’s a sunset-touch,
A fancy from a flower-bell, some one’s death,
A chorus-ending from Euripides,
And that’s enough for fifty hopes and fears
To rap and knock and enter in our soul,
Take hands and dance there, a fantastic ring,
Round the ancient idol, on his base again, –
The grand Perhaps!

It’s interesting to unpack the Bishop’s arguments. We might choose something different but it’s not our poem!

A sunset touch: I don’t know what does it for you – maybe standing on top of a Munro and looking out across the landscape and a thousand cattle upon a thousand hills. Maybe it’s a walk in the woods in autumn; maybe the dew on a spider’s web. I was climbing the Conic Hill once with a friend and as we stood on the bridge across the Burn of Mar she said you see that stone, with the water tumbling over it and the sunshine glinting – that’s why I believe in God. Eh?! For me it’s the head of a dahlia. All the diversity of shape and texture and colour, and symmetry – and why do we respond to it all? Surely, it’s easier to believe in a creative force than blind chance? And, you know, in the theory of evolution, it’s a long way from a blade of grass to consciousness?

A sunset touch: A fancy from a flower-bell: That sudden sense of the presence of God, something other, something numinous. Perhaps we’re suffused with joy, or gratitude, or overwhelmed with guilt? Or we ask for help and it comes and we think ‘What was that all about?’
A couple of weeks ago I was sitting in the pew listening to Alan playing the organ and thinking ‘I wonder if so-and-so would take part in this service’ and when the organ stopped so-and-so came over and said ‘I wonder if I could take part?’ Of course, it was coincidence! Perhaps! I call these spooky moments. The Bishop calls them fancies.

A fancy from a flower-bell: someone’s death: You could argue that our understanding of death is one of the most significant differences between those with faith and those without. It’s a harsh philosophy that argues that this is all there is. In my experience, it’s not so much the funeral, or even the moment of death, painful though these are. It’s the days, weeks, months waiting for the inevitable. Do we not linger over the old images and languages and hymns and promises? Don’t we grasp at hope. And is there nothing beyond, above, below, beside, no other? Then what does that make of this world? Do we just get up and go to bed for 60, 70, 80 years and then that’s it? Surely, we clutch at something more?

Someone’s death: a chorus ending from Euripides: or a Braham’s symphony or a painting, a sculpture, and embroidery. All that creativity and imagination and skill where does this come from? And notice it’s a chorus, – we do it together – relationship, community, fun, laughter. If you say ‘I can’t believe in God because of all the pain and suffering in the world’ then how do you explain all the love and laughter?

‘Surely’, says the Bishop, ‘in all this there’s room for a ‘Perhaps?’

Now you may be sitting there thinking ‘Perhaps’ is a wishy-washy sort of a word, a peally-wally sort of a word; a maybe sort of word! We’d like to absolutely certain!

But ‘Perhaps’ got us all up out of bed this morning and brought us to church; ‘perhaps’ sent someone yesterday in to a shop to buy flowers for the communion table; at the end of the service Priscilla will arrange for the flowers to be taken to someone to let them know we were are thinking of them. ‘Perhaps’ got the sound system organised, and the tea and coffee, and the order of service printed, ‘perhaps’ put the hymn numbers on the boards. And during the week, ‘perhaps’ will bring people back to the church for the Crypt café, and the Conversation Classes and the International Club and the host of other activities that the church offers.

And at the end of the service ‘perhaps’ will send us all home determined to try just that bit harder, to be more generous, more accepting, more forgiving, friendlier to passers-by.

And when we see pictures on our television of the needs of others ‘perhaps’ will get us all digging deep into our pockets. We will never meet these people, we may never know what happens to them, we’ll never see the toilets and the tents and the food parcels and the blankets. And it could be argued that they are nothing to do with us – unless – perhaps?
When you put it that way – there’s a lot riding on ‘perhaps”!

And thoughtful, intelligent men and women – as we all are the world over – need to make their minds up. It’s either ‘perhaps yes’ or ‘perhaps no’. And if it’s ‘perhaps no’ – what then? Something is driving our lives, something underpins our choices and decisions. What makes us tick? Perhaps Marxism, perhaps socialism, perhaps humanism, perhaps nihilism, perhaps humanitarianism, God forbid perhaps materialism or consumerism – there must be more to life than Marks and Spencer! When I was preparing all this I looked them up on Wikipedia – there were 485 to choose from – although I might have miscounted!

Christians, of course, can be any one of these – but they would always want to go further.

Christians would say – We’re not fools – of course we can’t be certain, of course we don’t have all the answers, of course there are times when we have doubts – but:
• Having looked at all the evidence
• And having considered the alternatives
• And having tested our faith against experience

We’ll take a punt – we’ll bet our lives on ‘Yes’.

And that has made all the difference. ‘Yes’ has influenced our moral choices and decisions; how we earn our money, how we spend our money, our friendships and our deepest relationships, how we use our leisure time, where we live and how we live and as Norman says in a lovely phrase – a thousand conversations over a thousand garden gates.

And over the years, as advent rolls into Christmas, Christmas to Lent and Easter, seed-time and harvest, saying ‘yes’ has become the bedrock of our lives. It has made us the people we are.

I didn’t finish the Bishop’s ‘argument’:

A sunset-touch,
A fancy from a flower-bell, some one’s death,
A chorus-ending from Euripides,
And that’s enough for fifty hopes and fears
To rap and knock and enter in our soul,

If so, some way must be,
Why not, “The Way, the Truth, the Life?”

And so, at the beginning of another Christian year, we will go on trying to follow the way; we’ll go on searching for the truth; and on this day of all days, we gladly acknowledge that in our lives, Christ is King.