And much cattle . . . In memoriam John Davis.

The main subject of this address, which I shall get to in a moment, is the fulfillment of a long overdue promise. It is, alas, as you will hear, now eternally overdue.

Three weeks ago my Old Testament and Hebrew tutor at Oxford, Father John Davis, died and two weeks ago I read from Ecclesiastes at his Requiem Mass in Oxford - the primary text through which he taught me Hebrew. He instilled in me both a great love and respect for the Old Testament and his way of tying in its stories and lessons to life, real life, made us friends too. Not surprisingly his death and the unexpected honour of reading a lesson at his funeral has led me to think about the years he was my tutor.

Although I was at Harris Manchester College my first year of lectures and seminars in Biblical studies was held at the Anglo-Catholic seminary St Stephen's House - popularly known as Staggers. I also went there for the following two years for my New Testament Studies and Christian Ethics classes. They were, in their own way, sublimely and, occasionally, dysfunctionally mad but in my continuing study of the OT with Father John my second and third years took on an genuinely eccentric and old-fashioned Oxford flavour. I used to walk to from college, down St Aldates by Tom Tower at Christ's and then on to the Abingdon Road and out to New Hinksey where, next to the parish church of St John the Evangelist was Father John's rectory. There, at 11 o'clock on a Tuesday in the main dining room at the back of the house we would sit down at the table with a Hebrew Bible, the enormous, but utterly indispensable, Hebrew lexicon by Brown, Driver and Briggs and St John the cat who liked to curl up on the table by us. There we would read through the text and, every once in a while, glance through the window over the lake in the old quarry to the fields and ridge beyond. This view was the scene of Arnold's famous poem 'The Scholar Gypsy' (of c. 1854). At my first lesson, Father John pointed to the ridge and recited from memory:

'And once, in winter, on the causeway chill 
Where home through flooded fields foot travellers go,
Have I not passed thee on the wooden bridge
Wrapt in thy cloak and battling with the snow,
Thy face towards Hinksey and its wintry ridge?
And thou hast climbed the hill
And gained the white brow of the Cumnor range,
Turned once to watch, while thick the snowflakes fall,
The line of festal light in Christ Church hall - 
Then sought thy home in some sequestered grange.' 

Later that Michaelmas term as I walked to New Hinksey for my lesson it began to snow and, ahead of me, I saw the ridge with its wintry face - perfect.

At mid-day, the lesson always ended with what became part of my weekly liturgy. Father John would close the Hebrew bible, rise creakily from his chair and say to me 'A gin and aspirin dear boy?' I only ever replied 'yes' and after a little more conversation would, at 12.30, would begin to make my way contentedly, but rather unsteadily, back to college for lunch.

During one lesson - for what reason I cannot now remember, Father John decided we would take a look at the end of the book of Jonah. You will, I'm sure, remember that at the very end of the story God decides not to destroy Nineveh - the city Jonah had been asked by God to warn to change their ways or face destruction. The city heeded Jonah's warning. Good n'est pas? Well not for Jonah because such a turn about is bad news for a prophet - you predict armageddon and God chooses instead mercy and compassion; man, it just makes you look like a rubbish prophet. So Jonah goes off to the east of the city in the mother of all huffs and builds there a little shelter to sulk. Seeing this tantrum God at first helps Jonah by causing a gourd bush to grow up beside him offering him additional shade from the burning sun. Jonah was very happy about this. But, next morning, God put a worm into the gourd and, when the sun came up, the bush withered. At the same time God prepared 'a vehement east wind' and this, along with the burning sun, caused Jonah to faint. On regaining consciousness for a moment Jonah expresses a wish to die saying '[It is] better for me to die than to live.' Then God said to Jonah:

Doest thou well to be angry for the gourd? And he said, I do well to be angry, [even] unto death. Then said the LORD, Thou hast had pity on the gourd, for the which thou hast not laboured, neither madest it grow; which came up in a night, and perished in a night: And should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and [also] much cattle? (Jonah 4:9-11)

It's a wonderful conclusion to a wonderful book and Father John excitedly turned to me and said, "Now what do you think is meant by those last words UBEHEMAH RABBAH" ("and much cattle")? Before I got a chance to answer, Father John closed the Bible, rose from his chair, uttered the magic words, 'A gin and aspirin dear boy?' and disappeared into the kitchen. When he came back with the appropriate aqua vitae he said, 'Dear boy, why not write a little sermonette someday on the text when you're out there in the sticks?' I promised him I would. I never did, until now that is.


Many of us can, today, no longer believe in the reality of a certain kind of God; the literal reality, that is, of an actually existing supernatural being who transcends us utterly and who intervenes providentially in our world - saving cities and destroying gourds though, mostly, vice versa. The God of whom Jonah speaks is simply no longer our God. As James C. Edwards notes, as a culture we have inexorably traveled a journey of faith that has moved us from such a literal conception of a providential God through to a Platonic idealism in which ultimate reality became that of the ideal forms, Plato's great contribution to western thought. From there we moved, again inexorably, on to the skeptical thought of Descartes who replaced the ideal forms as the basis of reality with 'cogito ergo sum' - i.e. the only reality we could know for sure was, not God, not the ideal forms but only ourselves as 'thinking things'. The gods and the Forms 'pass[ed] into being mere representations upon the ground of ego-consciousness' . Then, after Nietzsche, we (in western Europe and North America at least) entered a time in which we came to see that our own views of the world as an individual 'thinking thing' was not some accurate, ultimately trustworthy mirror-image (impression) of reality itself but, instead, a creation of our own will (to power). Consequently we have been left, not with 'indubitably true beliefs' but values. What is often more disturbing is that our values can be seen to be in competition with other values that contradict our own (cf. James C. Edwards in chapter one of his 'The Plain Sense of Things').

Charles Taylor (the Canadian philosopher and practicing Roman Catholic) in his recent book 'A Secular Age' (Harvard University Press 2007) tells us what he thinks is 'typical of the modern condition':

'We live in a condition where we cannot help but be aware that there are a number of different construals, views which intelligent, reasonably undeluded people, of good will, can and do disagree on. We cannot help looking over our shoulder from time to time, looking sideways, living our faith also in a condition of doubt and anxiety' (p. 11).

Both Father John and I, in our own ways, often talked to each other about this condition of doubt and anxiety because it was - and is - a condition that seems to preclude saying anything usefully definitive about what on earth UBEHEMAH RABBAH means.

But, putting this problem aside for a moment today's sermonette could be unfolded in a dozen directions. Here are just the headlines of two of them - those I might write if I were merely in my default sermon writing mode:

Given my own thought through philosophical position on this matter, I would first make it clear that I interpret what the word 'God' means in a Spinozistic way and would go on to point out that we can, therefore, take UBEHEMAH RABBAH to be an insight into how such a God includes in 'his' purview all creatures, not just humans. Given this view of God I might also preach an associated sermonette which argues that the words UBEHEMAH RABBAH begin to point away from a human-centric view of the world to a more wholistic view which includes and intrinsically values all things. I would use the text to promote a generally pan(en)theistic interpretation of Christianity that owes more to the thought of Epicurus, Lucretius, Spinoza, Nietszche and Wittgenstein than it does to any 'proper' orthodox Christian theology. It is, of course, what I always do and, since many of you attend regularly, presumably you continue to come because this more or less resonates with your own views about the world. In doing this I am explicit in claiming that this way of understanding Christianity is at least as equally and, in many cases actually more, fruitful than other ways of interpreting the Christian tradition.

But - and this is what I REALLY want to say today - what I might have said in any of these imagined sermonettes on UBEHEMAH RABBAH can no longer, and perhaps for us never can again, have the status of 'indubitably true beliefs' - they can only be expressions of my and I hope our values which have been shaped by the spiritual and intellectual journey I outlined earlier.

This is a vital point to understand.

It turns out that Father John's question to me "Now what do you think is meant by those last words UBEHEMAH RABBAH?" cannot be answered in the way he and I, and our respective traditions, once thought it could. To pretend otherwise is to retreat into utter delusion. Today I have not pulled or disguised this in any way and this is because I want to point clearly to our generation's hardest religious challenge - and therefore this church's hardest challenge - namely, how to be meaningfully religious (and in my/our case Christian) in an age, to quote James C. Edwards again, in which the traditional 'claims to truth [have] slacken[ed] their grip.' My whole work as you minister week by week is to try and figure out a workable answer to that challenge.

I'm not sure if this sermonette is precisely what Father John had in mind when he asked me to preach on 'and much cattle' - it may have sent him off in search of an early gin and tonic - but it is the only one I could muster today.

I shall miss him as I shall miss his critique of these words. Requiescat in pace.


Yewtree said…
I like it very much (well I usually do like your Spinozistic approach to the Divine). I also like a man who can recite poetry and dispense gin and tonic.

I just bought a book called The Book of Atheist Spirituality by André Comte-Sponville, which is quite interesting and free from the usual New Atheist cant about religion (though I am not sure about his definition of religion, particularly his views of Western religion, which don't appear to include Unitarianism). I've also bought Richard Holloway's Godless morality, having enjoyed his On forgiveness.
James said…
Thank you so much, Andrew.

Such a flood of thoughts followed for me...

My own professors and in particular my own Anglo Catholic mentor.

And more.

May the good father rest in peace...

By the bye, is a Gin and Aspirin gin and aspirin or something else?

Yr country bumpkin cousin from across the pond...
James, good to hear from you. Father John's 'gin and aspirin' was just a regular gin and tonic. I think it was his little joke based on the quaffing of too much gin the day before - that and the fact that tonic contains quinine which, like aspirin is derived from a tree. But this is just a post facto rationalisation - I just enjoyed the drink and company. Damn it, I'll miss him.
Yewtree - greetings. I'll be posting a quick blog later this week about a new book on Panentheism. A very cool tome it is as you will see . . .

Warmest wishes,