In last week’s Economist there was a photograph of a huge robot in the shape of a human being, and where its head should be there was a driving-cab with a real man inside operating the controls. That’s how we tend to think about our minds and our bodies. Our mind is the most important thing about us – our body belongs to a lower order of things and the mind controls it. This picture of the little man in the robot is a deep image within each of us, a deep image of our culture. So you get the view very dominant in our society that each person should be free to make themselves, to express what is within them rather than follow what is outside them. This gives us the revised Brownie promise introduced not long ago, that “I promise that I will do my best, to be true to myself and develop my beliefs …”. God has gone, and instead there is myself. You can’t criticise the guiding Association – what else can you say in a society like ours? There is a deep link between the Brownies here and German 19th-century philosophy. The German thinker Wilhelm Humboldt for instance believed that the individual ought to be free to determine themselves and develop themselves, and any restraints or influences outside ourselves were to be seen as a challenge to be overcome.
These assumptions are deeply ingrained in the modern mindset – but they are in fact outdated. Science, anthropology and philosophy are all now telling us that this image is mistaken – we are all in fact intertwined with each other. Because we are so used to it we don’t notice it, but all our life, even if we live relatively alone, is woven through this intertwining with one another. We have been learning a thing or two about that during lockdown. And not only that – our intertwining with the physical world goes right down to the deepest hidden parts of our minds. Even if you look at a cup and saucer for a few moments and try to think of all the thoughts that it conjures up, you realise that cups and saucers in your lifetime have laid down all sorts of things in your depths. The physical world is all the time contributing to our make-up. In the same edition of the Economist another article described how Tesla self-drive cars need a great multitude of sensors of all sorts. We are the same without realising it – we unconsciously take in masses of information from all around us.
St John in today’s gospel shows us Jesus saying, “love one another”. You could say that love is the perfecting of this intertwining. You can’t do what love does and be what love is without making yourself vulnerable, without loosening some of your control. You have to come out of the driving-cab, leaving behind its protection.
What is this love that Jesus talks about? It isn’t at all something you can simply turn on. If we make a great effort to love, we can end up with something debased. Love for others can be patronising, it can be manipulative, it can be deaf to what they want to tell us. Love can be erotic and even destructive, love can distort things. We are never in a position to reckon that something we are doing is love. If that’s the case, doesn’t this paralyse us? It only paralyses us if we see ourselves as a driver in a cab. In our gospel passage Jesus in fact says this: “as the father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.” This love is outside us. Wilhelm Humboldt, following his principles, will never find it because he is sufficient to himself, and any influence outside himself is something to be challenged. If we are to love, we have to go out from ourselves. The message of the gospel is that there is something, someone greater than us, and that we will find ourselves by sitting under this Mystery. Following Christ is paideia – that’s Greek for being a learner, an apprentice. “You have not chosen me; I have chosen you”. Kierkegaard said about St Paul that “the call to be an apostle is a paradoxical occurrence, lying always beyond Paul’s personal self-identity.” Beyond our personal self-identity. My sense of myself, and my picture of the world, will grow and change as I am taken outside of myself. Towards the divine Other. God is love, and Christ is the face of that love. Love is not something we do; love is being in Christ. It’s because of this that St Augustine could advise us to love God and do what we want.
In this Eucharist we are 2 communities: a religious community and a theological college. And there is another community intertwining with us, everyone present with us over the Internet. The Eucharist which brings us together is a place of abiding in that love which is Christ. Lord, you are in the midst of us, and we are called by your name. The Holy Spirit calls us constantly to wake up and be aware of the Lord in the midst of us. One way of being a learner in the School of love is simply to be awake and stay awake. Karl Barth, although belonging to the Swiss Reformed Church, was a great admirer of monastic life – despite all its failings he thought that over the centuries monastic life had repeatedly modelled what the Church is called to be. He wrote to the Abbot of the Benedictine monastery of Montserrat in Spain that renewal in monastic life cannot be something that happens every now and again. It’s every day. Monks and nuns, and the whole Church, stand and fall by the fact that our Lord… orders us anew at every moment. So for Karl Barth every moment of our Christian life is an event; monastic life is an event, triggered by the living God. To love as we were meant to love, is to be in Christ, in the Christian community, and for others, open to the world.
If associations like the Brownies are like a canary in a coal mine, having to reflect reflect what is in the atmosphere, then we must pray for our contemporary society to be transformed in such a way that the promise will need to be revised again, to refer to a desire to go out of ourselves, outside of our selves to find that love which is beyond all understanding.
Fr George CR