On ascending a high mountain and building towers - Jesus, Lenin and the kingdom of Heaven

Lenin Peak (7,134 m – 23,406 ft) in Gorno-Badakhshan 
Perhaps it was because a couple of weeks ago that I heard a programme about Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing's ascent of Everest and that this week a house guest had left a copy of "Mountains of the Mind" by Robert Macfarlane on our sitting room coffee table; perhaps it was because this week I was reminded that the Beatles' final recording, known to history as "Abbey Road", was once going to be called "Everest"; perhaps it was because at the moment I am re-reading Nietzsche's "Beyond Good and Evil" which he wrote in Sils-Maria in the Swiss Alps, but mountains have recently been very much in my mind. All of which may have reminded me of a short piece written in 1922 by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin called, "Notes of a Publicist" which bears as one of its subtitles: "On ascending a high mountain."

But, before we get to Lenin's parable here it's important to say something else first. I have long thought Carl Schmitt was correct in asserting, also in 1922, that "All significant concepts in the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts" (Political Theology p. 36). When I went back to Lenin's essay this week it's practical theological relevance to our own church's situation struck me forcibly and that is why I bring it before you today. So, Lenin begins:

'Let us picture to ourselves a man ascending a very high, steep and hitherto unexplored mountain. Let us assume that he has overcome unprecedented difficulties and dangers and has succeeded in reaching a much higher point than any of his predecessors, but still has not reached the summit. He finds himself in a position where it is not only difficult and dangerous to proceed in the direction and along the path he has chosen, but positively impossible.'

In these circumstances, Lenin continues, the climber:

'. . . is forced to turn back, descend, seek another path, longer, perhaps, but one that will enable him to reach the summit. The descent from the height that no one before him has reached proves, perhaps, to be more dangerous and difficult for our imaginary traveller than the ascent — it is easier to slip; it is not so easy to choose a foothold; there is not that exhilaration that one feels in going upwards, straight to the goal, etc. One has to tie a rope round oneself, spend hours with an alpenstock to cut footholds or a projection to which the rope could be  tied firmly; one has to move at a snail’s pace, and move downwards, descend, away from the goal; and one does not know where this extremely dangerous and painful descent will end, or whether there is a fairly safe detour by which one can ascend more boldly, more quickly and more directly to the summit.'

Lenin begins to draw this section to a close by noting that:

'The voices from below ring with malicious joy. They do not conceal it; they chuckle gleefully and shout: "He'll fall in a minute! Serve him right, the lunatic!" . . . They moan and raise their eyes to heaven in sorrow, as if to say: "It grieves us sorely to see our fears justified! But did not we, who have spent all our lives working out a judicious plan for scaling this mountain, demand that the ascent be postponed until our plan was complete? And if we so vehemently protested against taking this path, which this lunatic is now abandoning . . . if we so fervently censured this lunatic and warned everybody against imitating and helping him, we did so entirely because of our devotion to the great plan to scale this mountain, and in order to prevent this great plan from being generally discredited!'"

With this parable in mind and before we go on we may say that, whatever else this church is about, its beginning, the commandment it first responded to and which brought it into existence (its αρχή - arche), was the call to help build the kingdom of heaven on earth of which Jesus spoke. This task was always going to be like the climbing of a steep and hitherto unexplored mountain. The attempt to build on its slopes a "Golden City" or a "Jerusalem in England's green and pleasant land" (two of the hymns we sang during the service when this address was given) was, at many times, exhilarating and our progress towards the mountain's peak once seemed almost unstoppable. Whenever you take a spin out into the English countryside you can still catch a glimpse that this was so. One cannot fail to notice that, even in the smallest of villages and hamlets, we find, again and again, a proliferation of churches and chapels. The church and chapel buildings themselves mostly survive of course but, today, many of them are either poorly attended, disused or, in the case of many chapels, turned into chi-chi homes. They have become symbols of what is, today, commonplace knowledge namely, that in the painful, difficult and extremely slow way Lenin describes, every mainstream historical denomination (including our own) is finding that it is has no choice but to descend from the great heights they once reached.

As we are all being forced by present conditions to make this descent and it is impossible not to feel at times real despair and fear. It is not made any easier by the fact that, "below", we know there are many people who are only too delighted to see this situation unfolding.

Whilst meditating upon Lenin's parable I was strongly reminded of Jesus' own parable about the tower found in the Gospel of Luke (14:28-30). In it Jesus warns us that the desire to build a tower (which, like the mountain, can be read as an image of the kingdom of Heaven) requires us to count the cost before we begin. It is a parable which, when read in isolation, has often been used to criticize us by the same kind of despisers who have remained at the bottom of every mountain (or at the planning stage of every building project) who always have the excuse that their own continued inaction is rooted in a devotion to the same great plan to scale this mountain or build this tower. They tell us that they have not yet begun in order to prevent this great plan from being generally discredited by ill-prepared lunatics like us who continue to be prepared to make daring attempts to climb the heights (or build towers).

Now there is no doubt that an adequate lack of the right kind of preparation can contribute to the kind of failure that brings discredit to otherwise great plans and the arguments for inaction are almost infinite in number. However, as I intimated earlier, Jesus' parable must be read in the context of the whole New Testament and the ongoing Christian tradition and, when you do this, it dovetails with Lenin's parable in encouraging us to make attempts to build a better, more ideal society.

Seen in this wider context Jesus' we see that his parable is one which centres on the fact that our tradition's first great push to achieve the kingdom of heaven on earth, led by Jesus himself, collapsed in painful betrayal, violent death and empty despair and loss. The climbdown that had to be made by the first climbers, the early disciples and other followers of Jesus, seemed total. There would have been plenty of people around at that time who would have felt that this lunatic Jesus had generally discredited the great plan to free the people from both coercive religion and imperial control by beginning to build a fairer, more just and loving society for all.

But, as we know, the New Testament story takes a strange turn at this point and the story of the Resurrection marks the moment when a new attempt to climb the mountain begins and, for a millennia or more achieved some remarkable successes (as well as, of course, some serious mistakes, mis-steps and plain wrong turns).

Here, for a moment, we may return to the parable of Lenin because he reminds us that when we come to count the cost of our task those:

' . . . are doomed who imagine that it is possible to finish such an epoch-making undertaking . . . without making mistakes, without retreats, without numerous alterations to what is unfinished or wrongly done.'

Consequently he feels that only those:

'. . . who have no illusions, who do not give way to despondency, and who preserve their strength and flexibility "to begin from the beginning " over and over again in approaching an extremely difficult task, are not doomed (and in all probability will not perish).'

Developing the strength and flexibility "to begin from the beginning " over and over again (an insight first picked up on several centuries earlier by the Benedictines) is an all important part of counting the cost because we know that *ALL* our attempts to build a kingdom of heaven on earth will, in one way or another, continue to fall short of the full vision. The paradox is that this vision is what both inspires us to attempt to create the kingdom of Heaven, the Golden City, Jerusalem on a hill in the first place (always a deconstructable project) and that which also constantly stands undeconstructably before us calling us to account and to insist we correct our inevitable mistakes. As the playwright Samuel Beckett once put this insight: 'Ever tried? Ever failed? No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.'  (I have in mind here, of course, Derrida's thinking about the "undeconstructable".)

Anyway, right here and now, it is clear that we are not in a period of ascent but in the midst of what may prove a long descent and, like all such descents from such a great height it is often a frightening, humiliating and, at times, deeply depressing experience. Not least of all because as we get closer to the bottom we begin to hear ever more clearly the many cultured despisers of religion who will for ever belittle any utopian attempts to build a better society.

Consequently, as we descend (deconstruct our earlier attempts), we must always take care to remind ourselves and each other of the arche which called us into existence, namely Jesus' irresistible call to create the kingdom of heaven on earth - a society in which there is love and justice for all. Only when we do this with an authentic, living passion for this more just and loving society will we be able both to preserve our strength and flexibility "to begin from the beginning" over and over again and, in turn, help us see that we are far from doomed and, in all probability, that we will not perish. Though during a difficult descent (deconstruction) this is always hard to do for this comforting insight we must still give thanks and rejoice. Of course, just what exactly the new path up will be like and with whom we will be taking it cannot yet be known - but one thing I do know (thanks to being the kind of lunatic I am in my attempt to follow Jesus' footsteps) I'm up for another go. Anyone interested in coming?