Sermon for Advent 4 from Rev’d Ian Tattum

How many gospels are there?

You might say four: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. If you have read about the so-called apocryphal gospels, you might also be able to add the Gospel of Thomas or Peter, or Nicodemus. To the conspiracy theorist, these are witnesses to other brands of Christianity which were written out of history. The more conventional tend to view them as footnotes and tidying up exercises by people who wanted to fill in gaps left unfilled by the Big Four. The Gospel of James, for example, was about Mary’s childhood, and the Gospel of Nicodemus purports to fill in the missing bits in Jesus’ trial – a kind of speculative fiction.

But the only Gospel which calls itself a Gospel is the Gospel of St Mark, and it does not call itself the Gospel of St Mark, but The Gospel of Jesus Christ. Its focus is its subject, Jesus.

We can trace through history the first mentions of what we now call the Gospels. Justin Martyr, in the second century, called them ‘Memoirs of the Apostles’ and coined a brilliant word for them, which for some inexplicable reason never caught on: Apomnemononeumata.

The strength though of calling them memoirs is that, as with St Mark calling his little book ‘the Gospel of Jesus Christ,’ the focus remains on Christ, not the author.

St Paul, who wrote all of his letters before any of what came to be called Gospels were ever written, wrote a lot about the Gospel , and his meaning was clear: the good news about who Jesus was, what he did and what he meant for the world.

So there is one Gospel. And all the New Testament letter-writers, as well as Mathew, Mark , Luke and John, were trying to tell it.

This multiplicity of voices and perspectives has sometimes alarmed people. One response has been to try to iron out any apparent contradictions. One early attempt in the life of the church was an attempt to stick them all together in one consistent version.

This instinct is behind the way we often tell the Nativity story. Rather than concentrating on St Luke’s version, which has the annunciation and the shepherds, we add in King Herod and the Magi from St Matthew. One of the casualties is Joseph, who also plays more of a role according to the reading we just heard than in St Luke’s telling, but inevitably gets trumped by Mary’s more dramatic contribution.

Mary has a visit from an angel and sings the Magnificat. Joseph just has a dream. But that dream is significant. According to St Matthew’s Gospel it is Joseph who has a religious experience of a divine messenger. You might not have noticed that this echoes the story of a famous Joseph from the Hebrew Scriptures.

Receiving a message, a spiritual insight from God, during a dream has a very ancient precedent. I would never count out the promptings from deep within our unconscious minds, which can come when our surface mind gets a rest anyway, but that is not really my point.

St Matthew is clearly trying to make a number of points by what he writes. Primarily, he wants to assert that there is continuity between the Hebrew Scriptures and the shape of Christ’s teaching and ministry. When St Mark begins his book by proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, he is insisting that Jesus is the real thing, unlike those pretenders on the imperial throne who, as bloody and flawed as they are, make that claim about themselves.

As it is thought that Mark’s Gospel was written in Rome with a gentile Christian audience, this slant makes sense, but St Matthew, on the other hand, almost certainly had a Jewish Christian audience in mind. From the very off he concentrates on Jesus’ identity as the Messiah, as the Saviour sent by God to redeem the people. That this is his aim is revealed by the first two words of his book. You don’t need to be a Greek scholar to sit up when you hear the words Biblos geneseos: literally, ‘the book of Genesis’. This is a new creation story, a new origins story, deeply rooted in the Hebrew Scriptures.

And Joseph plays an important part. He assents to the whole thing too, just as Mary does in the beautiful story of the Annunciation. It is Joseph too, according to St Matthew, who has yet another dream, which tells him to take his family to Egypt when King Herod starts trying to find the potential rival to his throne.

We have an icon of St Mary with Christ at the back of church. It is a very familiar image. Mary has long been called the God Bearer – the Theotokos – and given an exalted role.

There are statues too of St Joseph, carrying the infant Christ.

In the Gospel reading this morning we hear of the fulfilment of a prophecy from the Hebrew Scriptures.

Look, the virgin (in Hebrew, ‘young woman’) shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’, which means ‘God with us.’

‘God with us’. Poets talk of the phrase where the poem lands. In this case, the words ‘God with us’ stand at the crunch point.

Our hopes for Christmas are centred on this child – who he is, what he will do – this child, who is announced to his parents by divine messengers: the saviour to be born in Bethlehem.

Messianic moments of healing: Reflection on Matthew 11.2-11 for the Third Sunday of Advent (11 Dec 2022) from Krista Ovist

Today’s Gospel reading prompts me to reflect on something I once witnessed that I can’t explain, something that amazed me.  I’ll call it a healing.  It happened in the South Pacific, in the small village of Tawatana on the island of Makira in the nation-state of Solomon Islands.

What was I doing there, you might ask.  That’s a good question.  I’ll tell you.

My husband, Michael, is a social anthropologist, and since 1992 when he began field research for his PhD, Tawatana has been his primary host village among the Solomon Islanders known as the Arosi.  In February of 2006 Michael began an eight-month period of new field research based at Tawatana, and I went with him for the first six weeks.

For Michael, this stay with the Arosi was a kind of homecoming, a return to old friends who had already taught him their language and way of life.  For me, it was, I have to admit, something of an ordeal.  Tawatana in 2006 had no electricity.  People relied on the local stream for all their fresh water needs, and men and women used separate stretches along the beach as their respective ‘his’ and ‘hers’ toilet areas.  Most dwellings were leaf huts used mainly for sleeping, and life was conducted primarily outdoors in the sticky tropical heat.  I developed a prickly rash from overexposure to the sun, despite assiduous efforts to stay covered up, and a cut under my right ankle bone grew into a hellishly itchy, weeping sore.  Only once did I make it up to the area above the village where people plant their sweet potato gardens.  The pathway up was nearly vertical at intervals and slick with wet vegetation.  It was too arduous a climb for me, although somehow Arosi of all ages did it every day – often multiple times a day – barefoot.

Not only was I physically uncomfortable most of the time, I was in the midst of people who practiced a strange ancestral religion.  Arosi are, and have been since the mid nineteenth century, high church, surplice-wearing, thurible-swinging, Anglo-Catholic Anglicans.  Arosi were my first Anglicans, in fact, the people whose example first attracted me to the Anglican tradition when I thought I had turned my back against Christianity.

Of course, Michael had already told me a great deal about the Arosi before I ever met them.  He told me, for example, the story of how a man named Suri from the village of ‘Ubuna, just down the coast from Tawatana, had started an Anglican lay healing ministry back in the 1970s.  During Michael’s first period of field research in the 1990s, Suri had given him detailed oral accounts of four dreams he had had over the course of four years.  Through these dreams, Suri told Michael, Jesus had called him and shown him how to perform healings using holy water and prayers.  Then, when Suri tried out, in waking life, the techniques he had seen in his dreams, he was hailed as successful and attracted followers.  With the support of local Anglican priests, he and his followers formed a recognized lay healing ministry.  They even adopted a distinctive uniform: a bright red, full-length tunic with a white sash, based on a design shown to Suri in another dream.

As a student of the history of religions, I had found all this fascinating and enjoyed discerning in Suri’s dreams his brilliant Arosi interpretations and extensions of biblical narratives.  Intellectually, I could appreciate Suri’s theological creativity and even find it beautiful.  But the very idea of a healing ministry still seemed to me to be just one more impossible thing Christianity asks you to believe in.

Then one afternoon, during my stay at Tawatana, Michael and I paid a call at the home of Ben and Elena Aharo, a married couple about our own age.  While we were enjoying their hospitality, we heard a sudden commotion.  A pick-up truck came rattling along the dirt road that passed near Ben and Elena’s house and stopped, full of what sounded like a bunch of rowdy young men.  But it soon became clear that one of them was violently ill, and his companions were struggling to help him.  He flailed about and groaned as if in agony.  They brought him inside Ben and Elena’s house, and Michael, who understands and speaks the Arosi language, hurriedly explained to me that the sick man had been drinking kwaso, an illegal and dangerous home brew that is 100% alcohol.

All this unfolded very quickly, and before I could even take it in, Ben’s father, Martin Toku, who was a member of Suri’s healing ministry, suddenly appeared with two companions.  The three of them had all brought what looked to me like bundled up parcels of cloth, but in a literal flash they unwrapped them, donned their bright red robes, and pulled out their prayer books.  They went instantly to the side of the sick man, who was now writhing and moaning on a bed, and began to pray and lay their hands on him.  Other villagers had arrived and were gathered around the bed too, creating a circle of intense concentration on the man and the work of the healers.  I looked on in shock and fear, never having been exposed to audible, visceral suffering in my sheltered life, and thinking, ‘This is serious; this man is seriously ill and there is no real medical help anywhere near here.’

And then I was put to shame.  My inability to imagine that three men in red robes with prayer books could do the sick man any good was put to shame.  I don’t know how long it took.  I only know that, as I looked on, and as I heard familiar-sounding prayers and psalms intoned in an unfamiliar tongue, and as I saw hands touching the man’s swollen stomach and pressing his arms and chest, he grew calmer and calmer and calmer, until a gentle peace came over him, and I couldn’t believe the transformation.

No, it wasn’t a miraculous restoration of sight to the blind, or a reversal of paralysis, or the spontaneous remission of a terminal cancer.  But it was real.  Something happened there.  Some power arose and circulated there, a power that humbled me and made me acknowledge what we call the Holy Spirit.  Something messianic happened, a moment of messianic salvation, healing.  Not a miracle, yet wonderful.  People conspiring, mingling their breath in prayers together, generating currents of comfort through touch, weaving someone who had strayed into anti-social behaviour back into the fabric of community support.

Today’s Gospel reading is all about what it means to be messianic.  John the Baptist’s disciples come to Jesus and ask him, ‘Are you the one who is to come?’, which is to say, are you the Messiah, the anointed one promised from of old by the prophets?  In reply Jesus simply points to his ministry of healing with the implication that this alone should enable them and John to draw their own conclusions.  But, of course, by this time Jesus has already sent his own disciples out to do the very same messianic things he himself is said to have been doing.  Matthew is clearly keen to establish unequivocally that Jesus – and not John – is the one, the Messiah.  But Jesus himself doesn’t seem so insistent on being the one and only one, the only messianic one.  Arguably, all of us who are baptized into Christ are anointed to be messianic, to bring moments of salvific healing to each other.

Regarding John the Baptist, Jesus goes on to ask the crowd, ‘What did you go out to the wilderness to see?’  Whenever I read or recall that question, I find that I want to turn it around and address it to myself, but with regard to Jesus, rather than John.  What do I keep going out to see and find in Jesus?  What am I looking for in him?  A Messiah?  Yes, inevitably; but what do I want from a Messiah?  There was a time, I think, when I thought I wanted Absolute Truth, complete revelation of the divine nature, the mind of God.  But I’m more demanding than that now.  Now when I go out to see Jesus – when I look for him here – I am hoping to find, not miracles, or omniscience, or immortality, but a few messianic moments of healing, like the one I saw in Solomon Islands.  And thanks to all of you, the messiahs of St Barnabas, I am finding them.

Sermon on Luke 20.27-40 from Rev’d Ian Tattum

Two weeks ago we did a participatory Bible study. You read the gospel, thought about it for a while, and shared your reflections and questions with those next to you and then with all of us.

This week I want to reverse that and go into greater detail about what I think is going on and throw it over to you to think about it. But also, I am going to go back a step to examine both the story in this morning’s gospel text, from St Luke Chapter 20: 27-40, and the one that came directly before in verses 20-26.

The passage just before today’s reading is, I think, much more familiar than the other; in fact, probably almost everyone knows it, and probably all think they know what it is about. The other, which I just read, is equally prone to misunderstanding.

I am going to begin with the really famous one, which comes first.

Jesus’ words ‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s’ are words which have sunk deeply into the English language. And they are generally taken to mean that there is a distinct political sphere in life and then there is a religious one.  The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Jeremy Hunt, went very close to saying just this recently when he insisted his religious beliefs didn’t interfere with his political convictions.

There is always a danger in taking words out of context, so we do need to take a step back.

Both these passages report incidents where people are trying to catch Jesus out. They are not asking straight questions but, in one case, setting a political trap – and a very dangerous one.  And in the other, they are trying to make Jesus look foolish.

Back to the question about tax. St Luke is clear about what he thinks is going on. He later tells us that, at his trial Jesus, was still accused of forbidding the payment of tax to the Emperor – Caesar Tiberius. But here we witness Jesus being more nuanced, although we can easily imagine how hostile witnesses might be able to misrepresent him.

We only need to go back 25 years to 7 AD to see how controversial paying tribute to Rome was. It was another Galilean called Judas who led a revolt because of an Imperial tax levy. For the Jewish population, there was additional offence caused by what was written on Roman coinage: Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus.

This was a political and religious hot potato. The denarius was a coin signifying being occupied by an imperial power, and making what for Jewish people was a blasphemous claim: that the debauched man ruling now not from Rome, but from the decadent island of Capri, was some sort of god!

So, Jesus’ refusal to answer their closed question trap – ‘Are we or are we not permitted to pay tax to Caesar?’ – was shrewd for a number of reasons: first, because by asking them to show him such a coin, he was demonstrating that they had already made their minds up that it was okay, so were not entirely neutral about the matter; and second, he sidestepped the treacherous political territory by treating the coinage as mere property and nothing more.

His twist, at the end, is to contrast the trivial matter of what is owed to Caesar – especially when it comes wrapped up in the form of an insincere and malicious question – with what is owed to God. Pay to God what belongs to God, is something else. Righteousness, truthfulness, integrity and what the divine is really all about – those are more important considerations.

And this priority is underlined in the very next incident – the one from the gospel for today. The Sadducees were the Jerusalem aristocracy, and we would today call them traditionalists. There is little trace of the idea of life after death in the Hebrew Scriptures. Incidentally, this is why the belief of Freud and others is so blatantly wrong. If religion is a comforting illusion to evade the reality of death, how come there is no afterlife in the oldest religious scriptures?

So, the questioners are again not totally sincere. They don’t believe the premise of their own question, as they don’t believe there is life after death; so who might marry who in such a state is not of real interest.

Again, Jesus avoids the yes or no response and reframes the conversation. He does say that after the resurrection there is no marriage; to imagine otherwise is to misunderstand the nature of life after death. But once again he raises the stakes.

Much more important than the mechanics of the afterlife is the nature of God. God who is the God of the living and the dead.; of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. Here is Jesus’ focus.

This does reflect on what I said earlier about life after death. Historians of religions have argued that the idea that life continues but in a new form after death developed not because people were fearful of death but because they could not believe that their relationship with God and God’s concern for them ended at the graveside. Jesus had the knack of frequently answering questions by saying, in effect, ‘That question is not big enough or serious enough.’ Here is a much more important question. What do you owe to God? What difference does it make if a woman has been widowed and remarried several times if you believe that God has as much care for her – and for you – as he has had for all people long dead, and if you believe that love endures for ever?

St Francis Part 2: Sermon for the week of 9 October 2022 from Rev’d Ian Tattum

The first pilgrimage that I went on was in 1983 and it was to Assisi in Italy. It was a journey organised by a church in Brighton which I had got to know in the 1970’s and where I had made a number of friends. As on all good pilgrimages, those of us travelling were a motley crew: a teacher in her 50s; a couple of teenagers, one the brilliant daughter of an eminent professor and the other a school-leaver with few qualifications and a moody disposition; a trainee accountant; a music teacher; a wood turner; and a cook-cum-gardener and odd job person (that was me). There was also a young priest who hated discomfort of any kind, which was a bit unfortunate, as we were packed in a mini bus and spent every night on a different campsite, including one in Florence – our last stop before Assisi – where the rain was so heavy that all our tents were washed away during the night and we had to stake them out to dry before completing the final stage to our destination.

My fascination with St Francis had begun a few years earlier and was formed by biographies and novels. Later, when I was studying Medieval History, I had to look at him and the movement in a different way – one purporting to be objective; but the stories I had come across earlier undoubtedly had more impact.

In last week’s sermon I reflected on some of his ideas that might help to enrich our understanding of nature and provide an alternative to some prominent contemporary notions which see the world as both empty of God and devoid of any spiritual values and merely the arena for individual self-assertion.

This week I don’t want to give you much more information about St Francis’ life or try to boil down his view of things to make it accessible, but to tell some of the stories told about him which grew up in the years following his death, which were quite clearly told and re-told because they provided different windows on what he meant. One of the criticisms made about St Francis at the time and since is that he didn’t have a coherent philosophy of life. So much was this the case that, indeed, he was sometimes, and still is, regarded as mad. In some of the villages he visited to preach peace and seek charity he was pelted with rotten vegetables and worse by the inhabitants. More charitably, he has been labelled a holy fool.

I find it helpful to remember that before his conversion to his life of poverty, Francis was a troubadour, a singer of songs, and the one of the last and the most famous things he wrote was a song: the canticle to the creatures, on which the hymn ‘All creatures of our God and King’ is based. Singers and song writers don’t always make rational sense but they do connect with and give a voice to our emotions and our convictions. Stories do the same.

Here is one you might not have heard before.

St Francis had become virtually blind towards the end of his life, but one of his favourite places was the lake of Piediluco. He loved talking to the fishermen there, and they and the lake itself reminded him of the Sea of Galilee and the first disciples who had followed the same trade.

One day he was out in a fishing boat with some friends when one of the fishermen offered St Francis a fish that he had just netted. The saint took the fish and thanked the fisherman, greeted ‘brother fish’, and then gently placed it back in the water. It swam off. Those with him were angry that they had lost their dinner. Francis explained that all creatures were connected and were brothers and sisters to people. Then everyone noticed that the fish was swimming behind the boat and it wouldn’t go away until Francis ordered it to return to its usual life.

And here is a better known one.

There was a town in Italy called Gubbio. One day a wolf came down from the mountains and attacked and killed a lamb. A lot of the forest had been cut down, and where it live was being turned into farm land and grazing land. People were frightened, so someone was told to go and guard the sheep and chase the wolf off if it came near. That person was never seen again.

So the people of the town asked three soldiers to go and hunt the wolf and kill it.

Next day one soldier came back alone and told everyone that the wolf had come and attacked them all and carried off the other two soldiers.

So the people of the town had a meeting to discuss what to do. And someone stood up and said, ‘Let’s ask Francis to come and help. He has a way with animals and has been known to chat to the birds.’ So they did this.

And a few days later Francis came, wearing a brown robe and leaning on a stick. When they went to meet him they saw the wolf had also come to town and was running straight at Francis, growling and showing all its teeth. Francis held up his hand and made the sign of the cross and blessed the wolf and wished it peace – he did this to everyone when he was walking anywhere.

The wolf stopped and, as gently as a pet dog or cat, came and sat at Francis’ feet. Francis told the wolf that the things it had been doing were verry bad and it should stop. ‘I know you are starving, so I am going to ask the people here to feed you, and you must make peace with them.’

The wolf bowed its head.

Francis asked the people of the town if they would make peace too by giving the wolf food to eat, and they agreed. So, he turned to the wolf and asked it to promise not to harm anyone ever again if they cared for it. It put its paw in Francis’ hand, and everyone watching clapped with joy.

From then onwards the wolf lived in the town. Even sleeping sometimes in people’s homes. It lived for another two years and never hurt another living creature again. When it died everyone in the village was devastated.

I won’t re-tell the story about Francis preaching to the birds, because that is too well known, or possibly too well misunderstood. But if you would like to ask me about it anytime, please do.

St Francis Part 1: Sermon for the week of 2 October 2022 from Rev’d Ian Tattum

Gerard Manley Hopkins, the poet, started his time with the Jesuits in Roehampton, at what is now Whitelands College. He hated his middle name and never used it himself. He associated it with his father and the Victorian take on masculinity.

He was saved from an existential crisis by the medieval philosopher who gave us the word ‘dunce’. His psychological dilemma was caused by the tension between his intense and passionate love of nature and the teaching he was getting from the church to the effect that such love of material things should be shaken off if he ever wanted to love God, who transcended all existing things and was the source of all spiritual ones. The philosopher/theologian in question was Duns Scotus, who lived in the thirteenth century and was ridiculed by later philosophers who saw him as an obscurantist and mocked him for being slow-thinking – hence a ‘dunce’. All of which is totally unfair and anachronistic.

The reason Duns Scotus was such a help to Gerard Hopkins, as we now know he liked to be called, was that Hopkins didn’t believe that God was outside, holding the universe in being, but inside things too, communicating through the unique character of sentient creatures and inanimate ones. He invented the word ‘inscape’ to help get at this idea. But you only have to read some of his most famous poems to see how his thinking went. The poems are often seen as heroically innovative tumbles of words striving to articulate the beauty of the world; but much more than this, they are hymns rejoicing in a creative God who indwells all things, and gives them meaning and beauty, without reducing their uniqueness or intrinsic value – from tiny pebble to human being.

‘As kingfishers catch fire’ is a perfect example:

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.
I say móre: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is —
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

Gerard Hopkins, was famously a Jesuit, but Duns Scotus was a Franciscan.

We are remembering St Francis of Assisi today.  And as I was reading about that saint again – while thinking about how Gerard Hopkin’s dilemma was assuaged by Duns Scotus and also observing some of our contemporary environmental and social ills – I was reminded why Francis has always been an attractive and compelling saint.

In case you have forgotten when he lived, he was born in 1181 and died on the 3rd October 1226. He was not a priest and emphatically not a monk either. This is significant. Italy was one of the many places in Europe at the time where economies were growing again after the very lean years that had gone before, and with more commerce there was a greater need for literacy in society as a whole. The scale wasn’t huge, but it meant that more people than before who were not in religious orders could read and write. One consequence of that was that Christianity ran a bit wild. The time was also the great age of heresy, and Francis was himself an outlier in a new-found confidence amongst those who were not priests or monks that the Gospels belonged to them too. It is a terrible oversimplification, but serious religion had so long been associated with the cloister that it had stifled the spiritual imaginations of the majority of people, who worked in the fields or in the industries of the growing cities. Francis was not the first to ask a question that we all have to ask ourselves.

If we read the Gospels and attend to what Jesus says and does what difference will it make, what should we do and how should we live?

By renouncing wealth and possessions, St Francis sought not only to be Christ-like but also to be vulnerable and hyper-ordinary.

You might see how Duns Scotus and, much more recently, Gerard Hopkins were following in St Francis’ footsteps.

Yes, God, could be encountered in the liturgies of the church, which then mainly meant in monasteries, but the divine was not confined to them. And Christianity wasn’t a religion for the spiritual elite but for every person to discover and pursue for themselves.

For St Francis, God in Christ would be met in nature, in the world, and in any traveller who might be met with on the road. The Franciscan tradition of greeting every stranger with a sign of peace, and the shocking behaviour of St Francis himself of kissing people who suffered from leprosy, were both out-workings of this belief.

This is going to be a two-part reflection, as St Francis’ legacy is so rich. I intend to look at some of his own words and the stories told about him next week, but I want to finish with a contrast. St Francis saw the world as ablaze with the glory of God – absolutely all things in existence – and embraced poverty in a way that underlined his need of God and the inter-dependence of people.

Ayn Rand has been in the news lately again because of her influential role in shaping the outlook of some prominent government ministers and figures around Donald Trump. If you don’t know who she was she is worth looking up. A philosopher-cum-novelist who escaped from Russia to Chicago in the early years of the Soviet regime, she advocated free market capitalis – not a de-regulated system but a totally unregulated one. That said, she did condemn what we would now call crony capitalism and believed that you must always tell the truth. But she also brought with her from Russia a thoroughgoing materialism and a devotion to the ideas of Nietzsche.  As a consequence, she rejected any role for God or religion, asserted that only reason mattered, and that reason’s main purpose is to serve the self-interest and acquisitive goals of the individual. Nothing deemed irrational had any usefulness or reality. Faith, hope, love and poetry don’t figure highly in her system.

I find the vision of St Francis and Duns Scotus filtered through Gerard Manley Hopkins so much more compelling, and timely.

Sermon on nature writing for the Eleventh Sunday after Trinity, from Ian Tattum

You might have seen the latest images from the James Webb telescope showing, with never-before-seen precision, galaxies across the universe, and which also allow us to look back into unimaginable depths of time. Those visual images sprung into my mind during last week when I was dipping into an earlier moment of scientific revolution.

I was in the Linnaean Society Library, which is near the entrance to the Royal Academy, where the librarian had very kindly allowed me to read two late-seventeenth-century books by the pioneer scientist John Ray. You have heard me talk about John Ray before. He was the person who developed the systematic study of plants, inventing the word ‘botany’, and made similar strides in ornithology. At the beginning of his book, The Wisdom of God, which I had in my hand, he laid out the principles of what became known as natural theology, explaining why he thought the only alternative theories of the time as to the immensely rich variety of life (the title is taken from Psalm 104) were not as good as the one that saw God as the artificer/creative engineer of life.

Aristotle had argued that the universe had always been there and all of its creatures, while the Roman Epicurean Lucretius had come up with a theory of chaotic atomic interactions. Imagine infinitesimally small ball bearings bashing into each other and randomly bringing everything into existence. For Ray there was too much beauty and complexity in the world for these theories to satisfy. The words of the psalm seemed to Ray to fit perfectly with what scientific discovery was revealing:

How manifold are thy works, O Lord? In Wisdom hast thou made them all’

I was quite surprised by what Ray wrote. He observed that already, thanks to the telescope, stars that the human eye could not see unaided were beginning to be discovered, and he suggested that, in the future, many more, even an infinite number, would be discovered. He also speculated that, as in our solar system, many of those stars would have planets of their own and that (remember this was 1671) each planet would have unimaginable life forms.

For Ray, the whole universe, from the tiniest plant directly beneath his feet to a far distant alien world, was a wondrous place, revealing God’s purpose and glory and open to human discovery and understanding. Although Ray was a reticent sort of man you can feel his focussed excitement about all these new discoveries.

Recently, I wrote another article for Church Times – this time on nature writing and spirituality. As the book I was basing my reflections on started with Gilbert White, I began with him too, but this morning, in deciding to share some of the ideas I wrote about, I opted to start with John Ray, as he propounded the principles that White followed a century later when he wrote a natural history of Selborne. The book is Modern British Nature Writing, 1789- 2020, and reading it I was cheered that, in its attempt to trace the legacy of Gilbert White down to today, it acknowledges the theological, or at least spiritual outlook, of many writers who have had a huge influence on the way we have come to think about the natural world.

So, to begin with Gilbert White himself.

The religious sensibility of White has often been downplayed, and the poetry he wrote to give it voice is usually overlooked. In ‘On The Rainbow’, for example, he contrasted romantic and superstitious reactions to seeing a rainbow with the attitude of ‘the sage’, who reflects on its creator and its symbolic meaning and begins to pray:

‘Thou mad’st the cloud,
Maker omnipotent, and thou the bow;
And by that covenant graciously has sworn
Never to drown the world again.’

Charlotte Smith (1749- 1806) is a writer who is becoming, very justifiably, better known. Like White, she too wrote in depth about the patch she lived in (in her case, around Brighton in Sussex), but very unlike that of the bachelor cleric, her life could never be characterised as one of tranquil rural retreat. Forced into marriage at fifteen to an irresponsible and violent husband, Charlotte had twelve children, and she wrote partly to stave off penury. She produced poetry, fiction and educational books, such as A Natural History of Birds, Intended chiefly for Young Persons (1807). But she broadly shared White’s theological outlook, seeing observation of ‘Nature’ as providing a glimpse of God’s Laws, which she believed would always remain beyond the reach of human understanding.

The startling progress made by the sciences from the beginning of the nineteenth century eroded such confidence, and we find later writers, formally Christian or otherwise, trying to prevent the unravelling of mystery. One such was Charles Kingsley (1819-75), now best remembered as the author of The Water-Babies, for his Broad Church theology and commitment to social reform. New scientific discoveries and the industrialisation which accompanied them were perceived by many, including Kingsley’s close friend John Ruskin, as leading to reductionism and materialism. Kingsley, however, welcomed the new discoveries; he was one of the first notable champions of Darwin, but suggested that the new sciences opened an avenue to see beyond what he termed ‘carnal’ attitudes to nature. Kingsley argued that nature and landscape could aesthetically and spiritually uplift the human soul. His book Glaucus: Wonders of the Shore ( 1855), is a perfect example of this and helped to inspire the Victorian craze for seashore life.

Richard Jefferies (1848- 1887) shared similar concerns about the reductionist nature of forms of knowledge, which he feared leaned too much towards documenting and controlling the non-human world, but he embraced a form of mystical paganism.

The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd (1893- 1981) has captivated people, including the hugely influential Robert Macfarlane, who have fallen in love with wild places at a time when they are disappearing from around the world. Shepherd was influenced by Theosophy and Buddhism, and her writing displays a deep ecology, where rock, soil, air, animal and human have an inescapable connection and a shared but diverse consciousness, which is more metaphysical than aesthetic.

In 2016 Charles Foster published Being a Beast, about his attempt to experience the life of other animals by adopting their lifestyles. He decided to get closer to the lives of wild creatures by spending time living in a hole in the ground and eating slugs like a badger and raiding city bins in the dead of night like a city fox. He described this as a kind of ‘literary shamanism’. His experiment in thwarted empathy was a means to expose the gap between animal and human perception and ways of living! In his more recent book about swifts, The Screaming Sky, Foster plunged deeply into the gulf between human experience and these remarkable birds, and quotes R. S. Thomas favourably for the humility of his point of view:

‘I am learning to bring
Only my wonder to the contemplation
Of the geometry of their dark wings’

It seems to me that it is inescapable that caring for the natural world and being anxious about ecological collapse demands much more than a political response. For John Ray and Gilbert White, everything began with wonder and praise at the unimaginable creativity of God, and the realisation that humans are part of a majestic universe worthy of attention and love. Many of the nature writers and science writers who are around today do seem to be committed to a re-enchantment of the world. They leave little space between facts and a sense of ‘wow’. Very few put this down to the glory of God, but there is an unacknowledged and unspoken sense of what we might call holiness and sacredness in much of the books I read.

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