‘And can it be that I should gain’ is one of my favorite hymns. Its tune is rousing enough to be hospitable to my lack of musical talent, and in any case the last verse or two refuse to be sung ‘soto,’
So I was delighted when my friend Matt Barrett, a.k.a. ‘the silver fox,’ told me that he had selected Wesley’s great hymn of gratitude and praise as his choice for the recessional at the end of evensong last week. (By the way the silver fox can sing; he was head chorister at Salisbury Cathedral two years running – still, he has probably never sung on Ilkley Moor from the back seat of a bus accompanied by thirty rugby playing mates – his loss!) The silver fox claims, and why should I doubt him, that his choice was a function of divine intervention. He was out riding his bike with his daughter when the ‘chain fell off,’ in that split second Matt knew that ‘and can it be………..’ was the right hymn. (I think the explanation is simpler – he is …. at bike maintenance – only joking Matt).
Whenever I have sung this great hymn I have always regarded the first four verses to be the warm up act for the last two; the bits where we start praising God because ‘my chains fell off,’ before in the last verse describing how we boldly ‘approach the eternal throne and claim the crown, through Christ my own.’
But, last week, I was particularly drawn to the opening words of the second verse:
’Tis mystery all: th’Immortal dies:
Who can explore His strange design?
I suspect that the words stood out, in part, because I am currently reading ‘Christian Mystics’ by Ursula King. In a spirit of confession I do find mysticism interesting and, I do believe that we are invited as people of faith to inhabit the holy mystery. I worry that Christianity sometimes seeks to present too cognitive / rationale basis for faith (this does not mean that I think that faith is irrational – actually I am not even sure that the opposite of rational is irrational). At theological college the courses that I have found least convincing are those which are informed by Christian apologetics. With Wesley I am far happier taking the view that ’tis mystery all.’
You might think that in an Anglican seminary the most contentious debates are around the big issues that seem to face the C of E, those of gender and sexuality. This has not been my experience. The heated arguments tend instead to be reserved for the ‘mystery questions,’ in those areas where various doctrines compete. Atonement and sacramental theology are the most obvious examples. I suspect some of the reasons such disagreement takes place is in part due to the way we have been taught to think and, the extent to which the church has been successfully evangelized by ‘secular’ philosophy.
The reformation, enlightenment and scientific revolution have taught us to become people whose first question is ‘how.’ How do the sacraments work? How are the elements changed? How are people saved? How does God respond to prayer? Our hope in asking the how question is that if we can understand the mechanics we will be able to replicate the effect. How, in many ways, undermines faith. How craves certainty and is reductive. I would guess that many of the most strident atheists are ‘how’ people. Their stridency is, perhaps, a function of being driven to a place where they simply can’t accept that which is outside the orbit of their cognition. Why? Because, they are asking the wrong question.
The real question is ‘why?’
The Digital Nun (please do have a look at her blog) made this point in a recent article. She argues that in earlier times thinkers where much more concerned with why. It is after all a purposeful question, a more open question, and in many ways a more thoughtful question. It is of course a question with a downside, for it does limit absolute certainty. Theologically all why does is allow us to get to a point, alongside St. Paul, where we can see ‘through a glass darkly.’ To be a Christian means to inhabit a mystery, to throw away the craving for certainty, to accept that the best we can hope for this side of eternity is to be partially sighted. But,why does more than this. Asking ‘why the cross,’ ‘why the resurrection,’ why Pentecost.’ ‘why the sacraments,’ ‘why pray,’ surely opens up opportunities to relate to the Divine, to know more about the qualities of the Divine than seeking mechanistic answers from the Divine.
Can you stand with The Silver Fox, Wesley and the Digital Nun?