Those images of gods in the ancient land, them, it is true, I may not invoke . . .

As a hart longs for flowing streams, so longs my soul for thee, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God? (Psalm 42:1-2)

As this verse from the Psalms reveals the experience of having one's thirst quenched by cool water has long been closely connected with a belief that the experience of an encounter with God is, in some meaningful way, a similar experience.  Within Christianity this connection is most memorably gestured towards in the Gospel of John (Chapter 7) where, you will recall, Jesus describes his own teaching as being like water. 

It seems reasonable to suggest that for the authors of the psalm and the gospel this connection between water and God was obvious - in the phrase I am using at the moment "it had for them the status of inevitable knowledge"; it was for them a thought that didn't need to be thought since it was simply part of the unquestioned background out of which they acted. In cultures which felt and still feel the existence of God to be self-evident - and especially cultures which are centred in hotter climates - the extraordinarily wonderful experience of drinking cool water on a hot day *must* be like, in someway, the refreshment that comes with an encounter with God.

One aspect of this world-view that is important to note is that it offered its speakers a language in which one could express the feeling that the physical water we drink is, somehow, something more than it is - as the Roman Catholic theologian Jacques Maritain memorably put it "things always give more than they have." Another phrase that resonates in some way with this feeling is Wittgenstein's comment in the Tractatus that "The sense of the world must lie outside the world" (6.41). The point I want to get across is, of course, that the *feeling* I get when I drink cool water seems to involve something more than what I am tempted to call 'the simple facts' of the matter.

The Gospel writer and Jacques Maritain (and, I think in an odd way, even the early Wittgenstein) were all bewitched by the aforementioned unthought thought that this "something more" is "out there", is "in God"or at least some "transcendental realm".

But, as we know,  for many complicated reasons the thought of there being such a transcendental realm "out there" no longer strikes many of us today with the force of inevitable knowledge and ncreasing numbers of people are forced to agree with Hölderlin's thought with which he begins his poem "Germania":

. . . the blessed, who once appeared,
Those images of gods in the ancient land,
Them, it is true, I may not invoke . . .

(Note the important use of *may* - for it is clear we *can* still invoke the gods the question is whether we *may*. . .)

But this overwhelming feeling that I may not invoke the gods (or God) of old doesn't in any way mean the end of my very real human feeling that a drink of cool water really feels like it speaks meaningfully to me of "something more". But, in the absence of the gods or God is not this merely delusional? Should it not be abandoned as a mere childish dream?

But I'm not sure it this is and I want to show why via the human *phenomenon* - namely, the feeling that we label "something more". It relates, of course, not just to water, but countless other experiences in our lives that we feel enriches us. It concerns me because it is clear to me, both personally and because I hear it from others in the course of my ministry, that a collapse in the belief in the gods of old removes from many people, or at least significantly diminishes in them, the *meaning* of the many amazing, wonderful moments that we all experience and which I epitomize today in the experience of drinking cool water on a hot day.

I'm sure you know what I mean. I'm referring to the kind of thing that happens to your spirit whenever you hear an ardent modern reductionist materialist tell you that the feeling you get when you quench your thirst is simply the result of this or that physical-mental-chemical-electrical process and who then goes on to state categorically "that that's that." Now I - you - might not wholly believe this but, in a culture such as our own that has come to feel the results of the natural sciences as being inevitable knowledge, then I am, at the very least, a little upset and disorientated by these claims - after all they do feel real to me. I take the scientific world-view very seriously indeed. Consequently, my confidence in the reality of this "something more" *is* slowly chipped away and my world becomes a little more disenchanted whether I like it or not.

Although emotionally I'm tempted to challenge this disenchantment by a simple reference to God or the gods I can't because, as I have just noted, the culture in which I have been ineluctably shaped is such that "them . . . I may not invoke." (I have to say that I really cannot believe they exist.) In the face of this the chief temptation is, naturally, to stop bothering and throw in the towel and become a card-carrying atheist and I have come very, very close to that decision many, many times. However, chiefly because I hold the office of a "minister of religion" I have had to continue to invoke those gods, or as our Judaeo-Christian heritage puts it - God, and I have justified this because in my book you don't quit an important task just because you are going through a little local difficulty yourself. You really do have to ascertain, to the best of your ability, that your local difficulty is serious enough to say, "Enough, is enough."

Now the reason I'm being so open about this today is that it is only in the last 18 months or so, after years of thinking this through, or better *feeling this through*, that I have noticed something does actually "come" whenever I invoke the gods or God. It took me so long to notice this other "something" because the absence of God, or the gods, loomed so large I simply couldn't see anything else. I began to realise that when I invoked the gods what came was not the gods but, as Timothy Clarke put it , "an empty space that might one day be filled but which for the present can only be kept open, safeguarded from obliteration" (Timothy Clarke, "Martin Heidegger", Routledge 2002, p. 110). (I highly recommend this book).

Now I realise that on at first sight this thought will hardly strike many people as either cheery or uplifting but I think that this space - if inhabited wisely - may prove to be my salvation and, if what I am saying in anyway resonates with you, then perhaps it may prove to be your's too.

The first thing to realise is that the space which comes at the invocation is still "sacred" - after all it is the 'place' that the gods of old used to inhabit. So this is not just any a bleak empty abandoned space - like some empty cosmic car-park with rubbish blowing around it - but something that I want to describe as an expansive imaginative landscape that surrounds an ancient, though now clearly disused, temple. In other words, once the immediate shock that the gods have gone has passed,  it reveals itself as a space worth discovering and still clearly full of sacred possibility.

The second thing to realise is that, having invoked and identified this sacred and radically open imaginative space, we don't want to allow it to be misused or to destroy the possibilities its very openness and absence of the gods gifts us. Whenever such open places are identified it is often only a matter of time before the real estate agents and developers move in, ranging from the fundamentalists of traditional world religions to the countless variety of new-age faddists, because they see here an unrivaled opportunity to ship in their own religious/spiritual ephemera (tat?!) and practices as quickly as possible.  But this common option does not  strike me as at all an appropriate response to the opportunity before us and so I want to ask a question; a question which seems to me entirely appropriate for a day on which we hold our community's AGM and look both at what we have done in the past and also try to imagine what we might do in the future. I wonder if it might not be our sacred task simply to hold open this sacred imaginative space to give us and our culture time properly to mourn the death of the gods (God) of old and, slowly, but surely to allow us the time and space gently to find an equilibrium and *sacred natural response* to the world that is appropriate to our present knowledge and experience?

I ask this because I'm more than a little concerned that in the present desperate attempts to find the new religious paradigm that will save our churches from irrelevance and/or closure (and I'm particularly thinking about churches at what we have called the liberal end of the spectrum) we will succumb to the temptation to fill the sacred imaginative space opened up by the passing of the old gods merely by replacing the old idols with new and equally untrustworthy ones. I'm not sure that we are ready to fill the space nor am I at all convinced that we should fill it

If we have the confidence to bide our time and quietly inhabit this sacred space I think it can help slowly to bring our imaginations back into this world. Once the deafening echoes of the voices of the gods have truly died away we may be enabled to hear the still small (earthly) voice which reminds us the spiritual refreshment we seek is always heard in our own simple, perfectly *natural* responses to the wondrous gifts of nature. Here we may return to the thought of water as refreshment - of it being more than the simple "facts" of the matter - but to be able to do this from a quiet, mindful and attentive imaginative space that is no longer inhabited by the noisy gods (or God). The contemporary poet who seems to be able to do this - to articulate a sacred natural response - more gracefully than any other is Mary Oliver. Here, in her poem "At Blackwater Pond", she offers a truly wonderful illustration of this (you can hear her read it at this link).

At Blackwater Pond the tossed waters have settled
after a night of rain.
I dip my cupped hands. I drink
a long time. It tastes
like stone, leaves, fire. It falls cold
into my body, waking the bones. I hear them
deep inside me, whispering
oh what is that beautiful thing
that just happened?

Surely simply noticing this beautiful natural thing that happens to us is enough?

I think it is but this natural refreshment is only the beginning of a true and full life back in the world because as Oliver elsewhere notes, "properly attended to delight, as well as havoc, is suggestion". In the light of that she goes on to ask "Can one be passionate about the just, the ideal, the sublime, and the holy, and yet commit to no labour in its cause?"

Her answer, like mine, is NO! and her final empassioned, embodied and natural call is the one I leave you with today:

"All summations have a beginning, all effect has a story, all kindness begins with a sown seed. Thought buds towards radiance. The gospel of light is the crossroads of - indolence, or action.

Be ignited, or be gone."

(from "What I Have Learned So Far" in "New and Selected Poems. Vol. 2 p. 57).


Yewtree said…
This is a very interesting post to me, as someone who has moved away from invoking specific deities with a personality towards a much more nebulous and non-personal view of the divine. If one invokes specific deities by name, one becomes hung-up on whether and how they respond, and one may start to view them as real people with personalities and agendas that people can have relationships with (a dangerous view, in my opinion - what's the difference between saying "Odin told me to do it" and "Jesus told me to do it"?)

I prefer to assume that the sense of presence in the landscape - the genius loci - doesn't have a specific personality, but is fluid and responds to the personality of the beholder.

On a lighter note, my immediate response to the title of the post was "oh go on, you know you want to..."