On “British Values” and the Love of God: Sermon Preached at Winchester Cathedral 17th July 2016

Text: Deuteronomy 30:1-20
In the wake of the EU referendum result there has been a deluge of articles, commentary and analysis… that has been really… comprehensively… rubbish. Everyone wants to give their perspective on what went wrong… put their stamp on where we might be going. And it is all rather tedious for us poor souls who have to endure it.
Articles and sermons on the EU referendum alone are only skimming the surface. Our nation has been divided for a long time. The referendum was only the latest event in a long history of distrust and frustration at the political establishment. The people of this nation look to their political leaders for ideas to unite them, ideals to fight for. But what have they offered us? Free market economics? Family values? Community or bigger society? Nationalism or internationalism?
Each party has tried to sell us these ideals in the past… and they have failed. They have not united us. They have divided us. And now a safe and speedy Brexit seems to be the rallying cry of Number 10. But is that going to be any better?
I want to preach a controversial sermon. Sir Humphrey would tell me that I was being terribly courageous… But if there is ever a place for debate that is meaningful, as well as risky… It is surely a Cathedral Church! So… anticipating intelligent listeners and lovers of meaty argument, here is my thesis. And I hope it has its roots not in my own ego or political allegiances… but the Gospel.
I suggest to you, that, if it is to flourish, this nation needs to learn again… what it means to love God.
if it is to flourish, this nation needs to learn again… what it means to love God.

For the past hundred years, the morality of our nation’s political life has been driven by a liberal humanism. Ideas like fairness, freedom, justice, tolerance and the dignity of the human person have been cornerstones of political discourse in all the major parties. They are the values we are taught as children in school, and they are the values we have sought to live by as adults.
But they didn’t spring from nowhere. The great early humanists, like Erasmus, drew their ideals from a living and profound Christian faith. Fairness, freedom, tolerance and human dignity… weren’t self-evident. They only became clear when Christians explored the question, “How might God want society to look? And how can society best help Christians give glory to God?”
In Britain, it was the Christian faith of the social reformers, like William and Catherine Booth, Samuel Wilberforce, Florence Nightingale and many others… and then the great Christian apologists, like C.S. Lewis and JRR Tolkein… who really cemented these values in the nation’s psyche. Liberal humanism, that particular way of viewing all human beings as being precious and of worth to each other, was no longer Christian. It began to become a given. These values were no longer “Christian” values. They became “British” values.
What we have seen in the past few weeks, and the disillusionment of recent years, is, in my mind, the result of our forgetting… where our values came from. The Christian social reformers did not think that human beings mattered because it was self-evident. They believed it because to honour human beings is to honour the God in whose image they are made. They didn’t fight against oppression and for a more equal society… just because it was obvious to them… but because this seemed to them a right response… to biblical principles and Christian teaching.
If we have forgotten where our “British” values came from, have we cut them off at the roots? Without a strong Christian faith to sustain them, is it any wonder that the Christian ideals of equality, tolerance, fairness and human dignity are beginning to wither away? When we have cut our culture so decisively off from its roots in Christianity, should we be surprised that its Christian ideals have become too abstract to unite us and inspire us?
The book of Deuteronomy forsees this crisis. Or rather, it warns against it. Don’t be fooled by its masses of lists: Deuteronomy is a masterpiece of statecraft. Its concern is how a nation, divided and without direction, can be united behind a common cause. 
At no point does it assume that human beings will just be good: the failure of the Israelites to do the right thing or govern themselves responsibly is attested to at every turn. Deuteronomy assumes that every human government, whoever is in control, evil Mr Blair or St Teresa of XXX, is bound to end in disappointment.
And so it shifts the focus. Listen to this again. “Moreover, the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, in order that you may live…” Deuteronomy makes the case, pretty convincingly… that the life of the nation depends on a change of heart. Not a change of heart from one set of abstract values to another, from left to right or right to left. But a change of heart towards God. When the nation once again learns to love the Lord with all its heart and all its soul… then it shall live.
In other words, learning what it means to love God and be loved by Him… is the key to the life of a healthy society… and good government.
And why? Jesus, in a passage which we will all know, joins the dots delightfully. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind, and with all your strength”, he says. “And you shall love your neighbour as yourself.”
Love your neighbour as yourself serves as a kind of shorthand for “British” values in primary schools. In love your neighbour is bound up all our best liberal humanist ideals: tolerance, justice, freedom, equality and dignity. Love your neighbour as yourself says it all.
But it doesn’t come alone. 
For Jesus, it is not possible for us to love our neighbour, if we do not know how to love the Lord our God. The love of God provides a foundation, an impetus and a sustenance for us to love our neighbour as ourselves. Unless we learn to love God, Jesus says, our attempts to love our neighbour will ultimately fail, because we haven’t really learned what true love means.
True love, the love into which God invites us, is a love that is willing to become like us, to reveal Himself to us and make His home among us, to become our friend and to break bread with us. True love is a love which is willing to be betrayed, to be beaten and wrongly judged, to be murdered on a cross, with criminals… just to show us what that love is, and to enable us to share it. True love, is a love stronger even than death, which rises on the third day and walks among us again, sending His Spirit to dwell among us for ever, never to leave us alone and without help.
As St John’s Gospel puts it, “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that God loved us.” If we think that loving our neighbour as ourselves, British values, or living as good people, is all there is… then we just haven’t got it. We don’t define love with our best attempts at loving. God defines love, with His searing, perfect love, enthroned once for all on the beating heart of the cross.
And this is why our nation needs to know that love once more. The love of God gives context to our worldview. It makes sense of our ideologies. It gives our political will to create and sustain a better society… substance and foundation. It tells us not only that our values matter, but why they matter. The love of God does not present us with abstract ideals to pick and choose… but a reality to be lived.
Archbishops Justin and Sentamu have called us, the Church, to work for healing in our nation. To do that, we need to give the nation… a reason, to sustain its liberal values of tolerance and justice.
That reason, is the love of God. It is Jesus, the love of God in human form. Who was born and lived as one of us, who went to the cross willingly, all for love of you and me. It is Jesus, risen from the dead, who sends us the Holy Spirit… to inspire us to love, to aspire to goodness and greatness… far beyond our natural capacity.
Politicians cannot unite this nation, cannot heal this nation… alone. We, the members of the Church, the bearers of God’s love, must leave here tonight… and show those we meet the love of God. Teach them what true love can mean. 
Do not profess to hold “British values” which have changed countless times over the centuries. Confess the faith of the eternal Christ… live the unending love of God… which truly brings wholeness and healing.
Live lives on fire with love, Brothers and sisters. Be lights of love in this present darkness. This is not the time to hide the love of God within you.

Trinity and Mystery: Getting the Balance Right. A comment on the Pusey House Conference 2016

Abstract: The question of ‘Why the Trinity matters to us?’ throws up difficult questions of our tendencies towards anthropomorphism in theology. I suggest that anthropomorphism exists at both polar approaches (extreme immanence and extreme economy) and that paradox is the best way to acknowledge the sovereignty of God over Trinitarian discourse.

The first time I read Gregory’s On Not Three Gods I was captivated, and at the same time baffled. Captivated by the lucidity and beauty of the Cappadocian’s argument. But baffled too by the fact that people needed an argument to convince them that the Christian Trinity was not three gods, but One God.

From our modern image of God the Trinity as an old man sat in majesty on a cloud, it is hard to imagine a world in which God’s oneness was ever in doubt. God’s oneness is our starting point (and I think that has more to do with our natural tendency to anthropomorphise than any Augustinian-Thomist monist emphasis). I think we like to think of God as one because we like to think of God as primarily like us, as a person. 

I recently attended my first conference. That this was the Pusey House conference on the Trinity, with many of the greats speaking and in attendance, has terribly spoiled me! But I was struck by a recurring theme: Why do we think that God’s Trinitarian being matters to us?

Speakers at the conference followed Karen Kilby’s arguments against a social trinitarianism, which assumes too easily and lacking theological nuance that because God is three persons in relationship we too must be, in our very being, persons in relationship. And they also resisted challenges from the floor to suggest that the Trinity is a mystery simply revealed to be adored, of no consequence to us other than the simple fact of its being. As Rowan Williams put it, it seems unconvincing to say that God reveals Himself as Trinity so that we can simply say, “Ooh… impressive.”

I think the conference was right to reject both the social Trinitarian approach, which assumes too close a link between the Trinitarian being of God and our own society, and also an approach which conceives of the Trinity as pure mystery, of no direct import to human lives. 

On one level, this is because both fundamentally fail to balance two elements of our understanding of the being of God. Social trinitarianism places too much emphasis on the economic Trinity, how God is to us and what this means for us. Trinity as pure mystery overemphasises the immanent Trinity, the inner life of God which, taken to an extreme, has no significance for human beings at all. As Karl Rahner wrote in 1967 in his great essay on the Trinity, ‘The “economic” Trinity is the “immanent” Trinity and the “immanent” Trinity is the “economic” Trinity.’ To undermine the ‘permanent perichoresis’ between God in Himself and God for us is to begin to undermine the statement that God is a God who saves. It is to begin to say that our salvation, the summation of God’s economy for us, is not in fact a full action of God’s being in Himself. And if God is not a God who saves, where then is our salvation?

But back to anthropomorphosis. Both the extreme Trinities, social and pure mystery, are fundamentally reactions to our shock, our horror, and our fear as human beings and theologians, that God is not like us. To say that God is a relationship of persons, as we could be if only we were perfectly communitarian, is to say that God is like us, albeit perfectly. But to say that God is pure mystery, His being having nothing to do with us, is to hold God at arm’s length. It is to say that because God is different to us, and we are different to Him, we must inhabit different spheres. Though it comes from a desire to preserve God’s sovereignty, it diminishes God in several ways.

Firstly, it assumes that, just was we are different from each other because we are independent, God must be utterly different to us if he is to be utterly independent. This is non sequitur, and is precisely the argument Gregory tackles in On Not Three Gods. We are deluded, and our thinking metaphysically deficient, if we think we are truly independent of one another. Three human beings are not fundamentally three distinct entities, but one humanity. I am concerned that our desire to preserve God’s sovereignty by asserting God’s otherness may arise fundamentally from our own misapprehension of our own independence from one another. There is a constant temptation in human thought to say that because God is different to us, and we are different to Him, we must inhabit different spheres. What this implies is that we are in a competitive relationship with God. If we did not keep God at arm’s length, “over there”, God might displace us, intruding into the reality “over here”, or we might be able to displace the reality of God. But we are not like a boat displacing water in the sea of God. We are not in competition with Him in any way. To suggest otherwise is to diminish God’s total sovereignty over the reality we inhabit. Though the tendency to banish God from our reality often comes from a desire to preserve God’s sovereignty in our thinking, the opposite may in fact be the result. God’s sovereignty is affirmed by the fact that He can be both infinitely present and infinitely self-contained. This is true sovereignty. This model of God’s Trinitarian life therefore, just as much as social trinitarianism, may arise from anthropocentric concerns, and anthropomorphising tendencies within us, towards independence as much as society.

Secondly, there is something profoundly inconsistent about insisting that for God to be sovereign He must have a particular nature. It is tantamount to saying that, for God to be unlimited, He must be limited to being a particular way. I am not convinced that doing away with the economic trinity, in spite of all the revealed data on God’s relational being, in Himself and to His people, is really an assertion of divine sovereignty and divine will. It is rather like a king ordering that his portrait be painted to depict him as he is, and his ministers disobeying him, saying, “But he is sovereign over us: we must paint him as we think a sovereign should be.” That is not really sovereignty at all: it is projection. God’s sovereignty is asserted as much in his revealing Himself to be economic as His being immanent. To ignore God’s sovereign relational and economic revelation is not an assertion of His sovereignty.

Finally, in conclusion and at the risk of being frightfully Barthian, to say that God is either primarily immanent or primarily economic is to deny the paradox, the frustrating of any absolute goals of the theological vocation, which is the mark of God’s sovereignty over the human mind. As Kallistos Ware commented so entertainingly on Augustine, talking about the Trinity is a continuous exercise of saying and unsaying: you can never get it quite right. We are right to try to ask the question, “What does the Trinity mean for us?” and we are right to probe the answers critically. But to say that God is either one or three, or here or there, either immanent or economic, or abstract or real is to miss a beautiful truth of Trinitarian theology. God reveals himself. He is knowable. And yet He is unknowable. This is the sweetest paradox by which God asserts His sovereignty over the theologian. As we noted at the end of the conference, this is what makes Trinitarian theology such an exciting and yet frustrating enterprise.