Thursday 3 January 2013

Message from the Presidents

Close to the heart of the Christian religion lies paradox. In a way that ought not to surprise, for it is very difficult to know how and where exactly paradox and mystery differ. Certainly there is something mysterious about paradox. And the Christian religion, like all religion perhaps, marks out our human response to the Mystery that conditions our living, our breathing, our very being, a response that depends upon that Mystery for its every success.

You know you are in the presence of something paradoxical when you realize that opposites which we ordinarily think of as mutually exclusive turn out to belong, indeed to lay claim to the very same “place” at the very same “time”. Old and new are perhaps appropriate to illustrate what I mean. Old and new are opposites. When we try to think of them together it is as if they work against each other. There is a kind of mental repulsion that keeps “the new” apart from “the old”. When something is new it is not old, and vice versa of course. Bring God and God’s revelation into the picture however and something odd happens. Old and new belong together. Creation is divine revelation. And Creation is old, billions of years old it seems. None of us go back to the beginning. Narratively but also scientifically we can only hypothesize on the basis of what we know or think we know because of observations being made right now or at least right now in comparison to the beginning beyond our ken that we are trying to investigate or imagine. Creation is old; God’s revelation is old beyond count and tells us of its age time and again. Scripture is by comparison new and indeed reveals something new about God’s revelation: Christ, God-with-us, who came to make all things new. This newness is illustrated in the Good News of Scripture and in its works right here, right now, in our hearts and lives. God’s revelation is old and new. It is both at the same time. There is something paradoxical about God’s revelation, come to think of it. And God’s revelation is the occasion for Christian religion. It only stands to reason there is something paradoxical about it too.

I can get at this last point in terms of another pair of terms: continuity and discontinuity. The story of Christian religion, of our human response to God’s revelation, is a story that is at one and the same time continuous and discontinuous. There is a deep continuity that goes all the way back to the beginning; it is ancient of days, like the Creator in the Psalmist’s description. There is a meaning that gives shape to the world of creatures, a meaning that is rooted in God’s original invitation to be. That original invitation has never passed on. It continues to hold. We can see this holding both in what stays the same and what changes in our world. In the Reformational tradition we have often spoken of that enduring continuity as Creation Law or Order. It is deep, moving below the surface of things, like tree sap in the heart of northern winter. There is continuity here that suffuses all that goes into creaturely existence establishing health and the basis for health throughout all our days and places. Such continuity finds its level in all our storytelling as a choir’s drone essential if not often attended to in the presence of the cantor’s musical pyrotechnics. But that is not all, sadly. There is not just the patient unfolding of the implications of all God’s original “Let there be . . .”s. There is also catastrophe in the air.

Our whole world bears the abysmal discontinuity of sin, original promise blighted. Our access to original meaning is made difficult. It has been driven deep into the thews of our world, deep below the reach of our foreshortened vision, our poorly engineered attention’s span. If original promise and blessing remain the first and deepest word we can utter in our response to God’s revelation, we no longer see and know of what we speak, not clearly, not without ambiguity and the hesitancy around or blind bellicosity with each other that follows in ambiguity’s wake. And that too halleluia is not the end of the story. There is redemption afoot, opening up possibilities like a Spirit hovering over the void. And this redemption dynamic is incarnate. It inserts its God-dynamism into flesh and earth, water and air, with the willfulness of flame, going where it lists while we huff and puff in our awed efforts to keep up and keep track of all that is made new in its light. Redemption brings to the surface original blessings buried deep as the best kept secrets within every iota of creaturely existence, but it also redeems discontinuity itself until it too speaks of blessing so that from now on continuity and discontinuity belong together in the mystery of a redeemed creation inclining in hope toward consummation. This is the paradox of Christian existence. Such existence suggests at one and the same time a continuity deep within a plot riddled with discontinuity, and the presence of discontinuity deep within a long continuous narration. In this, stories of Christian existence mirror ever so well the paradox of God’s revelation itself. And it means that our stories have a complexity native to and ineradicable in them. The old and the new will be ever and simultaneously present. Continuities will be enabled by every discontinuity, and vice versa. We Christians will only remain the same by changing, and constitutive of any change will also be a subterranean remaining-the-same. Every conversion will at one and the same time reaffirm an original goodness, just as every affirmation of an original goodness will demand future conversion.

The paradox of Christian existence is a good thing to remember heading into a new year. For us at ICS it is particularly poignant. We are at the cusp of a new chapter of ICS’s existence in which we welcome new presidents and work with them to bring what is old into what will be new, seeking ever to respond gratefully to the New/Old presence of our Lord whose age-old invitation to be continues to resound in the redemption dynamic that invites us to turn ourselves around so as to cooperate in making all things new. It is my prayer that ICS will find ways of being ever more the very best of its original promise in its becoming ever-new, especially in the chapter of its story that begins with the advent of new presidents at the snowy dawn of 2013. I invite you all to join me in that prayer this month.

For the Presidents,

Bob Sweetman