November 3, 2006

For the Sake of Truth

for the Feast of Richard Hooker: a sermon by Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

GRANT that we may maintain that middle way, not as a compromise for the sake of peace, but as a comprehension for the sake of truth. — The Collect for the feast of Richard Hooker

There once was a vicar in an English country church of whom his congregation said, “Our Vicar is like God — he is invisible on weekdays and incomprehensible on Sundays.” I hope that I will not in my reflections today prove to be the latter.

Incomprehensible is a synonym for “impossible to understand.” Such understanding can be pictured almost in a physical sense: for to understand is to stand under, as a table stands under what is placed upon it, and so must be larger and more stable than what it holds in order to sustain or support it. To comprehend in this sense is to hold the object of knowledge on the table of ones mind.

Which is why God is incomprehensible. We cannot comprehend God because however hard we try, we cannot wrap our finite minds around the infinite God; God will not fit on the table of the human mind, however rasa our tabula, however much room we make on it, however many leaves we add, because, as the old hymn says, God is broader than its measure.

And the same goes for Truth, if we are speaking of Truth With A Capital T — not just some true things, but the whole ball of wax, the Truth as a full and complete description of All That Is — for the description must be at least as complex as what it describes. Try, for example, to describe a zipper to someone who has never seen one. And when we get to natural zippers like the string of DNA that holds us all together and builds us up at the most fundamental level, the description will take volumes — the printed listing of the human genome, a single transcribed copy of just one DNA zipper, of which we each carry trillions of the real thing in our bodies, would take 200 volumes the size of the Manhattan phone book.

To make matters worse, the truth about what is — even as it is spoken — adds to the sum of what is. If we were to write down even a mere tally of all that is, without further comment or explanation, truly the universe itself would not be large enough to contain all the books that might be written. For the books themselves would add to the substance of the world, and with every word we wrote we would be adding to the subject of our enterprise, and the bibliographers and catalogers would soon have to take up their work. As the wise man said, “Of the making of books there is no end.”

Indeed, the only way to comprehend the Truth, in this fullest sense of the word, and as appears to be the aim laid out in the Collect for this feast of Richard Hooker, is to be outside of all that is. And since only God is outside of all that is, as God is the cause of all being and becoming, so only the mind of God can truly comprehend all Truth.

We get glimpses of this outside-in structure of reality in the visions of the saints and poets — in Byzantine icons and in Dante, and in William Blake too. Perhaps it is most vividly captured in that wonderful vision God imparted to Blessed Julian of Norwich: a God’s-eye-view of the universe, as she saw in the palm of her hand a tiny thing no bigger than a hazelnut, so frail it looked as if it would cease to be in a moment. And God told her, It is all that is, and it endures because God loves it. As Blake would later write,

To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.
That is the God?s-eye-view that only the odd mystic glimpses.

Now, in spite of the visions of the saints and poets — who are careful not to mistake these momentary experiences of God’s view of the world for their own accomplishment — most of us are wise enough to know our limits. As Hooker himself put it, “The true properties and operations of [God] are to know that which is not possible for created natures to comprehend; to be simply the highest cause of all things.” (5.53.1)

Yet in spite of this, some in the church from time to time do appear to think they have come into possession of the Truth, which usually turns out to be something far more prosaic and far less visionary — a set of right doctrines, or more commonly, right behaviors. And most of us have the good sense to realize that even this limited claim is a bit presumptuous. We have learned from the hard experience of the church’s history that what you don’t know can hurt you; and that often the church is at its most errant precisely when it claims to be most certain. It is rash for any in the church to claim the ability to see in a glass brightly: especially when the church’s rear-view mirror consistently warns us that objects are nearer than they appear — and we travel at our peril if we imagine that our view through the looking glass is either infallible or complete. Indeed, as we take that backward glance on the ecclesiastical autobahn, we see that behind us HeilsgeschichteStrasse — Sacred Story Street — is littered with the wrecks of time over which God towers in divine incomprehensibility.

Just ask Galileo, Richard Hooker’s contemporary, who set about the task of trying to record a few true things about the world, things evident to the senses, or at least to the senses aided and abetted by the telescope. He suffered the fate of being told that what was wasn’t, or at least wasn’t what he saw it was. Threatened with torture, he recanted and submitted to those who refused to know the truth of what is, so insistent were they on what they thought ought to be.


Those on our side of the Tiber, the Anglicans, by Hooker’s day had learned their lesson the hard way. There had been enough burnings and tortures and beheadings on the scepter’d isle over mutually exclusive doctrines to satisfy the lust for certainty at least for a season. So a “settlement” to continuing vexatious matters emerged from the serendipitous arrival of a monarch like Elizabeth and a scholar like Hooker.

Now, Elizabeth, as a monarch, was probably more interested in compromise for the sake of peace than in comprehension for the sake of truth. She did not wish, as she said, to make windows into men’s souls. She knew that if she refrained from peeping into her advisors’ heads, she could benefit from the wisdom they would share around the privy council table, rather than having to commit those selfsame heads to the block and pike. As long as private opinion on divisive matters was kept in the privy closet, as long as one didn’t ask or didn’t tell, a form of peace could be maintained. Thus what Napoleon would later call the nation of shopkeepers kept the peace by means of compromise, the peaceful coexistence that falls a good deal short of true communion and community, but at least keeps heads on shoulders.

But as our collect reminds us, Hooker aimed higher. His Middle Way was not primarily a matter of compromise, but of comprehension. And the genius of comprehension lies in the breadth of its embrace, and in its confession of and willingness to live with an inevitable degree of error and ignorance. Hooker confesses that since we cannot know all things, and sometimes err in the things we think we know, we must allow room for all things, to make the table not infinitely broad (which is beyond our capacity) but broad enough to hold both the unforeseen and unexpected guest, as well as the uninvited and errant guest who shows up at the wrong party. Who knows, until the master comes, who really belongs there after all?

Hooker directs us to avoid the need for final answers on all but the minimally sufficient, and sufficiently salvific claims of the Gospel, secure truths at the heart of what it means to be Christian: centered on the existence of God, and the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ —the eternal Gospel without which there really wouldn’t be any point in continuing the discussion, but beyond which all else is more or less provisional. As he said concerning baptismal faith: “Belief consisteth not so much in knowledge as in acknowledgment of all things that heavenly wisdom revealeth; the affection of faith is above her reach, her love to Godward above the comprehension which she hath of God.”(5.63.1)

So the final answers and the definitive positions on everything and anything, so beloved both by Calvinists and Papists, would give way in Hooker’s view to a more rational willingness to withhold and reserve final judgment on all but a very few core doctrines, to realize that mutually exclusive opinions on other matters cannot both be true — and in the long run neither might be true, and the real truth might lie somewhere else altogether. To cast the net broadly, to make the table wider; to expand the breadth of charity to include all possibilities on matters for which clear and final evidence is yet to be shown: this is Hooker’s rational and charitable mission, a willingness to treat our knowledge as sufficient, rather than complete, and certain, in certain matters, only of its own uncertainty; and above all to trust that all such knowledge and love are securely centered in the depths of God, where the Spirit moves and searches, and where alone wisdom is to be found.

For when one is truly in the communion of the Church, truly united with the other members of the body — which can only truly be a body when all the members are lovingly comprehended in it in spite of differing opinions on secondary matters — Deus ibi est: God is there. Next to this transcendent unity-in-communion all other modified and restricted uses of that word, even the one called “Anglican,” must surely pale in comparison. In the truly comprehensive communion of the whole Body of the Church, the blessed company of all faithful people, we are in God, and God is in us.


And it is in this that we come to the grand reversal, the inside-out of God. Now, generally speaking, reversible garments are notable principally for being unattractive whichever way you wear them. But the inside-outness of God is quite another matter. Here we enter the amazing world — the real world, I might add — in which the inside is bigger than the outside — as observation shows us is true of most church buildings. God’s universe, it turns out, is more like those Byzantine icons or M.C. Escher lithographs than most people are willing to allow. This truth is summed up nowhere so well as in that Johannine avalanche of prepositions and pronouns from today’s gospel.

Jesus starts first from the expected greatness of God: “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us” — so we are nested in God, resting in the palm of God’s hand like Thumbelina, safe in our hazelnut cradle.

But then comes the surprising reversal: Jesus prays, “I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one,” and suddenly we — made one in the mystical and holy communion of the Body of the Church, the Body of Christ, the temple to which God comes and deigns to be our guest — suddenly we hold Christ within us as he holds the Father within him, nested like a set of Russian dolls with God the Father in the innermost secret room of the human heart, the holy of holies, the privy chamber and closet of good council, and the human image and likeness become the frame to hold the true divine reality behind all that is, among us and within us always.


And in this and this alone is the comprehension of the Truth, the whole Truth, and nothing but the Truth. I said earlier that God will not fit upon our mental tables; but there is one table on which God will fit, indeed, upon which God will fit in a few minutes. It’s right there in the sanctuary. In a few moments, the universe will turn inside out, the heavens will open and God will descend and condescend to be among us and with us, the Spirit will descend upon us and upon these gifts, and we will hold God in the palms our hands, and place God to our lips and, like Mary, become God’s earthly sanctuary. We in him and he in us, will become what we behold, and hold what we become.

Sanctified in this Truth, comprehended in this Body, fed with this food, may we be now and ever one, in the knowledge and the love of God, and the peace of God which passes understanding.


Anonymous said...

Thank you. This meditation brought tears to my eyes.

Anonymous said...

Ah, Tobias, you have been silent here for too long. It is a fine thing to hear your voice again!

And to hear it once again so mystically and theologically (and poetically - which is usually the same thing!) clear.

Thanks, my brother.

Anonymous said...

Amen and amen, Br Tobias.

Truly the best sermon I've read in ages. (I read a lot of 'em - really)

Thank you