Safer than the known way

A short thought for the day” offered to the Cambridge Unitarian Church as part of the Sunday Service of Mindful Meditation.


Click on the photo to enlarge

In the last couple of weeks I found myself taking another look at a painting I really, really dislike, namely, William Holman Hunt’s famous picture of 1853 called, “The Light of the World” that now hangs in the Side Chapel of Keble College, Oxford (see photo on the right).

This painting was hugely influential in Victorian culture and, once upon a time, it could be found everywhere as it was endlessly reproduced in the form of postcards or larger engravings which were hung in private houses, schools and church buildings. I knew it thanks to my paternal grandmother, who had a colour postcard of it in her Bible which I inherited when she died. To me, this picture has always seemed to be the epitome of what I want to call—undoubtedly unfairly—the “worst” kind of Victorian sentimental Christian piety. It’s probably not insignificant that, although I still have and cherish my grandmother’s Bible—given to her as a Sunday School prize at Christmas 1912 from St Luke’s Mission, Victoria Docks, London—the postcard of Hunt’s painting is no longer anywhere to be found.

Scroll forward twelve years when one sunny, spring afternoon in Oxford during 1998, I was on my way from my college to the Divinity Faculty Library. My route took me past the entrance of Keble College and on a whim I decided to go into the chapel and give Hunt’s original painting a look. I thought that, perhaps by standing in front of the real thing instead of looking at a little postcard, I’d finally get some understanding of what was so important about that image for my grandmother. So, in I went, made my way to the Side Chapel, and contemplated the picture for a long while. Alas, not only did no new understanding come to me, but I found I simply disliked the real thing even more than I had my grandmother’s postcard. And so I quietly left and thought no more about the painting until last week when I began reading what seems to me to be a warm, insightful and wonderfully helpful and enlightening book called, “Safer than the Known Way: A Post-Christian Journey” written by the radical theologian, Maria Francesca French.

Towards the beginning of her book, French tells a story of how in a local antiques market she found a postcard of Hunt’s painting upon which were reproduced some words from King George VI’s 1939 Christmas broadcast speech in which he famously quoted some lines from Minnie Louise Haskins’ poem, “The Gate of the Year”:

          I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:
          “Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
          And he replied:
          “Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God.
          That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”

French tells us that, although she, like me, felt dubious about the image, thanks to the accompanying words, she also felt a certain attraction to it and decided it was worth the 50-pence price tag to take it away with her. As she walked home with her new acquisition, French tells us she reread the lines several times, during which she “couldn’t help but see the radical nature of this poem” which seemed to be saying to her, “forget the Light. Go into the darkness,” because “that shall be to you better than light and safer than the known way.”

She admits that, although King George and Haskins almost certainly did not intend the kind of radical, post-Christian reading of these lines that French offers (and it is certainly not how my grandmother would have interpreted it!), French’s theological imagination had suddenly taken hold of things. So much so that when she got home she framed the postcard, placed it on her bookshelf and had begun “to dream that this was a prayer. A prayer of a Radical Theologian and Post-Christian. A prayer to the Impossible god that leaves the big G God in its dust. [A prayer in which] Our only hope is the darkness without the Light,  and all that is better than Light and the known way. Here I am, send me. Here we are, send us.”   

As you have heard, the line, “safer than the known way,” eventually became the title of her new book, published in January of this year in which she recounts, in an engaging, personal way, how she has slowly been developing precisely the kind of post-Christian religious faith I’ve been exploring with you for many years now. This new kind of faith is one that is wholly prepared to forsake “all we think we know, all that we have worked so desperately to comprehend and dig our heels into, all that we have come to trust, expect and be confident in.” It’s a faith which, even as it comes after the death of the big G God, knows, deep in its bones, that this death is precisely what gifts us with both the opportunity and freedom to set out on a path that is “safer than the known way,” one which can help us truly address our contemporary human condition and our desire for wholeness, belonging, and meaning.

Now, as you know, every week in our Sunday Service of Mindful Meditation, I explicitly encourage you to set out on this path with me by inviting you to say together with me the following words at the very end of the service:

“We receive fragments of holiness, glimpses of eternity, brief moments of insight. Let us gather them up for the precious gifts that they are and, renewed by their grace, move boldly into the unknown.”

These words are, I think, correct, because we have a great need to acknowledge we are moving, and moving willingly, into the unknown. But now, having read French’s wonderful and uplifting book, I think this truth can be better and more positively expressed by borrowing her radical re-reading of Haskins’ lines so that our concluding words can, and perhaps should, be altered to read as follows:

“We receive fragments of holiness, glimpses of eternity, brief moments of insight. Let us gather them up for the precious gifts that they are and, renewed by their grace,  begin to walk a path that is safer than the known way.”

Unless I’ve totally misread the general mood of this congregation (and please let me know if you think I have), it seems to me that most of us are gathering together in this liberal, free religious community because we truly know and trust that there is a religious path which, without doubt, is safer than the known way. We know and trust this because we can see that the known ways we have inherited from our forebears not only no longer work, but are also now proving very harmful and are leading us to destruction.

However, please remember that, at the same time, this does not mean that the path that is safer than the known way is one that is absolutely safe and without danger—it’s only a path SAFER than the known way.

Drawing upon John Caputo’s work—one of French’s own key theologians—I have said to you on a number of occasions over recent years (see, for example, HERE & HERE) that we need to be clear that all steps along any path “cannot be insulated in an absolute way from missteps and sidesteps, and paths cannot be protected from dead-ends. To take steps in a certain direction, to be en route, to follow in someone’s steps cannot be protected absolutely from detours, road blocks, misleading road signs, false steps and impasses” (John D. Caputo, “What would Jesus Deconstruct: The Good News of Post-modernism for the Church”, Baker Academic, 2007, p. 43).

But, to repeat, although there’s no guarantee that the post-Christian religious path upon which we are beginning to travel together will be easy and without danger, I think most of us know in our heart of hearts that the path we are now travelling is, indeed, safer than the known way. Have faith in this, my friends, have faith . . . and go boldly!


Myrna M said…
At last, someone who also prefers to link the tear-sodden image with that famous quotation, and improve the image thereby. Stepping boldly, having faith in the unknown, is to shed fear and to trust in ‘the great whatever’. Perhaps in stepping boldly, we are trusting some guidance from within (though ‘within’ can be anywhere, including outside, the great beyond… ).
Dear Myrna,

Thanks for the comment. Yes. And I echo your point that, in the post-Christian context anyway, if we choose to use the word “within” then it needs to be employed in a fashion that makes it clear that all "withins" are also "withouts," and all "withouts" are also "withins" and all "great beyonds" are, simultaneously, intimately immanent, right here, right now.