Monday, February 22, 2010

Treasure in a Clay Jar

Today (Tuesday 22/2/2010) we are beginning our series of Lent Talks.  We've called this series 'Treasures in Clay Jars' - which is a deliberate quotation from St Paul.  In his 2nd letter to the Corinthians Paul talked about his faith...what he called 'the light of the knowledge of the glory of God' which for him was a marvellous, amazing revelation of God.  But, Paul says, in chapter 4, 'we have this treasure in clay jars'...acknowledging the fragility of the body and mind which carry around this knowledge and experience of God.  Paul goes on, 'even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day'.  For Paul, the treasure, the precious faith he carries in his heart is what sustains and renews him, despite the fact that his 'outer casing' is wasting away.

Bev, Di and I (blog-note: leading-priests of the North End Portsmouth Team Ministry) all acknowledge that we are clay jars.  We are subject to the same weaknesses of body and mind as everyone else.  We are just as likely to make mistakes as everyone else...we are fragile, clay jars.  But we also carry around treasure, inside of us - treasure that we believe God has placed within us.  Our treasure is of slightly different types. It might be gold, rubies or diamonds...but it is treasure.  And it's this treasure that sustains us in our ministries...and it's this treasure that we want to share with you over the coming weeks.

You will have your own treasure too - we hope.  You will have ideas and feelings that sustain you, and which propel you forward in your own faith.  Hopefully, as we share with you something of the treasure that we hold inside us, you will be helped to recognise and begin to use the treasure you have inside your own clay jar.

It is my task to start this series of talks.  And I want to do so by outlining to you something that I carry around with me as true treasure.  This is treasure which always has value for doesn't rust, and it doesn't ever run out.  Sometimes it gets a little dusty, because I don't always have enough time in my day to day life to take it out and look at it.  But its always there.

The simplest way to describe this treasure is in the form of a question.  It's an important question.  It's a question which gets me up in the morning, and sustains me through the day.  It's a question which, when I really begin to wrestle with it, helps me to find meaning for the life I lead, and the things I do.  It's also a very simple question.  I suppose you want to know what the question is now?  It's this...

Who am I?

That's it.  There are supplemental questions too.  Questions like 'why am I here?'.  And 'where did the Universe come from?'  But at the root, the most basic question that any of us can ask is 'Who am I?'

This is a philosophical question.  And the treasure in my clay jar that I want to bring out to show you today is a love of philosophy.

I imagine that the word 'philosophy' is a frightening word to some of you.  It perhaps conjures up names like Plato, Aristotle, Heidegger and Kant...and long, technical words like existentialism.  But please don't worry.  I'm not going to give you a lecture on the history of philosophy!  Let me just break down the word 'philosophy' itself.  It is an ancient Greek word, made up of two separate words.  Philo - which is one of the words that the Greeks used for 'love'.  The second part of the word, 'sophy' - comes from the Greek word 'sophia' which simply means 'wisdom'.  So 'philosophy' is 'the love of wisdom'.  A philosopher is someone who loves wisdom.  That's all it means.  So please don't let the word frighten you!

Perhaps the best way to approach philosophy is to ask a few philosophical questions.  These are the kind of questions which people of every age, and every culture, have always been asking.  Questions like: how was the world created?  Is there any active, living Will behind what happens?   Or is life just a series of random events?  Is there life after death?  Perhaps one of the most important questions that lovers of wisdom have asked is 'How should we live?'

The question that I said sums up my own treasure in this clay jar was 'who am I?'.  For me, that question acts as a focus for all the other questions.  Am I a random, chance event...just a collection of chemicals that have randomly come together to make me?  Or am I the product of a Force, a Will, a Creator who has deliberately desired that I should live now, at this moment, in this time and place?

Essentially, there are not many philosophical questions to ask.  The ones I've just posed are certainly some of the most important ones.  But history presents us with fascinating and different answers to each one.  The task of the philosopher - the lover of wisdom - is to explore the answers that other people have come up with...and to let those answers help us form our own opinions - and ultimately the basis on which we build our life.

Studying philosophy can be a bit like a detective story.  Some detectives might think that Smith was the murderer, or Jones, or Green.  Or perhaps they were all involved.  Perhaps they all planned the murder, and were all involved - but only one of them pulled the trigger.  How can you tell?  Sometimes the police can solve a crime - but sometimes they just can't get to the bottom of it.  Perhaps there is not enough evidence.  Or perhaps the evidence is in conflict with another piece of evidence.  But whether the crime can be solved or not, there was still a crime.  It's the same with questions of truth.  There may only be one right answer to a question...or there may be many...perhaps different shades of truth.  But there is a solution somewhere - if only we can find it.

It's the same with philosophy - the love of wisdom.  Some philosophical questions can have only one right answer.  Either there is a God, or there isn't.  Either there is life after death, or there isn't.  The philosopher's task, like a detective, is to sift the available evidence - and arrive at a reasonable conclusion.

One of the greatest Philosophers was a Greek man called Plato...who based his writing on the thoughts of his teacher and mentor, Socrates.  Plato believed that philosophy sprang out of human beings' sense of wonder.   Over time, humans had developed the ability to think about themselves.  They became, in the words of another philosopher, "the man who knows that he knows".  That's what the term homo sapiens refers to...and is, in fact a contraction of the original phrase...'homo sapiens sapiens'...the man who knows that he knows.

Have you every thought about that before?  Have you ever wondered what makes us different from other thinking creatures on this planet.  Consider a dog, for example.  If you've ever owned a dog, you will know that dogs can certainly think.  My dog is very able to think about how to sneak food out of the cat's bowl!  Dogs definitely think - and they definitely feel. You should see how depressed my dog gets when she can't get anyone to give her a tidbit from the table.  And how happy she gets when a certain favourite visitor comes to call...especially one who throws a ball for her.  But the difference between me and my dog, is that I can sort of stand outside myself, and realise that I think.  I can think about the process of thinking.  I am a man who knows that he knows.

Once human beings had developed that ability to know that they knew things - many thought that it was astonishing that they had that ability...and astonishing that they were alive at all.  It was so astonishing to be alive that philosophical questions began to arise of their own accord.

According to a modern-day philospher, called Jostein Gaarder, its like watching a magic trick.  We cannot understand how the trick is done.  So we ask: how can the magician change a silk scarf into a white rabbit?  A lot of people experience the world with the same sense of wonder as an audience who watch a magician.  In the case of the rabbit, we know the magician has tricked us.  What we would like to know is how he did it.

But in the world, it's somewhat different.  We know that the world is not all sleight of hand and deception, because here we are, in it; we are part of it.  Actually, says Jostein Gaarder, we are the white rabbit being pulled out of the hat - the world, and our very existence is so amazing, so improbable, that we are a kind of living magic trick.  The only difference between us and the rabbit, is that we know we are taking part in the trick.  We feel we are part of something mysterious and we would like to know how it all works.

Philosophers, throughout the millennia, have tried to help us to get to know how the magic trick works.  They have tried to expand our consciousness of the world around us, and of our place in the world.  They have forced us to ask the hard questions, the deep questions:  why am I here?  Who am I?  How was the world made?

The trouble is, as philosophers have complained all through time, many people just don't want to do the hard work of thinking about those sorts of things.  Many people are happy to go through life just being told what to think - and what to believe.  Many homo sapiens simply never get to the point of being sapiens sapiens!  Worse still, some people never get beyond working at the level of simple instinct...the instinct to survive, or the instinct to destroy, or to dominate, or control.

Earlier this week I walked out of my house to find that a drainpipe from my garage was hanging off the wall.  I thought it was odd.  Perhaps someone had accidentally knocked it with their car while turning in the street? But then, as I walked on down the road, I discovered that the house next door had also got its drain-pipe hanging off.  And the next one.  And the next one.  It quickly became clear that some individual had systematically gone down the street destroying drainpipes.

Why?  What possible reason could anyone have for mindlessly destroying drainpipes?  Perhaps at some instinctive level, someone had simply decided that they enjoyed the sound of drainpipes creaking and cracking before falling off.  Perhaps someone had lost control over something in their life...perhaps a partner had left them...and this small act of vandalism was a way of showing themselves that they still could control something in their life?  Who knows?  What was clear though, was that this was not the act of someone who has asked the philosophical questions.  Who am I?  What am I here for?  This was someone who was acting at a purely instinctive level of a dog who chases reflections endlessly around the lawn.  Pure instinct.  This was someone with no sapiens sapiens.

Sadly, as philosophers have observed across the millennia, this is the standard pattern for many human beings.  We see it, all too often, in our own streets, and among our own families and neighbours.  People get stuck into the dull routine of getting up, going to work, slumping in front of the box...and then doing it all over again.  They so rarely stop to gaze at the magnificence of a sunset, or the intricate beauty of a flower.  Rarely do many people stop to ask themselves even the most basic sapiens sapiens question - like 'what makes my relationship with my partner work?'.  Even less do most people ask themselves the question 'Why am I here?'.

Jostein Gaarder continues his analogy about the white rabbit by saying that we can see the rabbit the Universe.  A wondrous thing, brought into existence by forces that look like magic to us.  And yet, most human beings choose to bury themselves in the fur of the rabbit...where it is warm and cosy...where nothing can frighten or challenge.  Philosophers are those rare individuals who are prepared to climb up one of the hairs, and to peer out at the Universe.  In Gaarder's words: 'Philosophers are always trying to climb up the fine hairs of the fur in order to stare right into the magician's eyes'.

Plato - that ancient Greek lover of wisdom - used another analogy for this same dilemma.  He effectively said to his readers:  most people live as though they were dwellers in a cave.  Such people spend their whole lives standing in one position - staring at the back-wall of the cave.  Behind them is a light, and in front of the light, other people are moving wooden cut-outs of worldly objects - making shadows on the wall in front of the cave dwellers.  For the cave dwellers, this is all there is to life.  To them, a house is just a shadow of the outline of a house.  A tree is just a long shape with a fluffy bit on top.

Imagine what would happen if one day, one of the cave dwellers turned around, and saw what was happening behind them.  How excited they would be to discover that there was more to life...that, in the first instance, a house was not a shadow, but a firm outline made of wood.  Imagine then that our rebellious cave-dweller realises that the light, behind the cut-outs, is coming from further fact from the entrance to the cave.  Astonished at this discovery, the cave-dweller walks towards the light - and then, in the full glare of the sun, he discovers what a house is really like, and how wonderful is a tree!

Plato suggests that this is the kind of journey that philosophers - lovers of wisdom - can make.  Philosophers are those of us who are no longer content with a world of shadows.  Philosophers want to walk towards the light...and find the source of life.

That is my treasure in my clay jar.  That is, ultimately, the force that drives me to want to be a priest.  I like to think that I am one of those people who climb up the hairs of the white rabbit's fur...and try to look the Magician in the eye.    

The philosopher's road has been a fascinating journey for me so far.  I think that I have only just begun to scratch the surface of the big questions - the 'who am I?' sort of questions.  I believe, for example, that my life has a purpose - and that I am not a random accident of fate.  I believe that there is a Creative Force, out there, something greater than I can ever conceive...and that somehow, I am linked to the rest of the Universe, through that Creative Force.

I choose to make my journey of discovery a Christian one.  I believe that Jesus of Nazareth was someone who was more connected to that Creative Force than anyone else who has ever lived...and that he was uniquely in tune with the big questions.  I follow his teachings because they make sense to me, on a philosophical level.  They give me a framework around which I can fine-tune my own, personal understanding of the 'who am I?' question.  Who am I?  I am a child of God.  What is my purpose?  It is to live for God, and to show God to others.  It is to stand in the door-way of the Cave, and to call back to the other cave-dwellers 'come and see what it is like in the sunlight!'.

However, as a philosopher - a lover of wisdom - I don't claim that I have got all the answers.  Do you remember Socrates...the mentor of Plato?  Socrates was executed by people who didn't like the fact that he would spend all his time going around telling people that they don't actually know anything.  He had an irritating habit of seeking out people who thought they were wise, and then like a child who keeps asking 'why', he would gradually reduce them to having to admit that they didn't know anything.  He famously said, "True wisdom comes to each of us when we realize how little we understand about life, ourselves, and the world around us."  Or to put it more pithily: "One thing only I know, and that is that I know nothing"

In a rather longer explanation, at his trial which was recorded by Plato, Socrates related how he came to a conclusion about a supposedly wise man whom he had interviewed.  He said this,

"Well I am certainly wiser than this man. It is only too likely that neither of us has any knowledge to boast of; but he thinks that he knows something which he does not know, whereas I am quite conscious of my ignorance. At any rate it seems that I am wiser than he is to this small extent, that I do not think that I know what I do not know."

I take those ancient words, and that ancient warning, right to my heart.  I have chosen the path of being a Christian minister - but I freely acknowledge that this is probably an accident of birth.  If I had been born in Tibet, I would probably be a Buddhist.  If I had been born in Mecca, I would almost certainly be a Muslim.  But I was born in Weston-Super-Mare...and in Somerset, in the 1960s, no-one knew what a Muslim was...let alone a Buddhist!  So I was introduced to Jesus, from an early age, and found in him many meaningful answers to the philosophical questions that I was asking.  Jesus has never led me fact, he has brought me back from going astray on many occasions!  So my allegiance is to him.  But, as someone who fully acknowledges the wisdom of Socrates, I don't claim that I have understood everything there is to know about God, through Jesus.  As a lover of wisdom, I keep my eyes and ears open to what else there may be to learn...what other solutions to the puzzle of life might also be available to me.  Like the policemen who try to solve a complicated murder, I know that there are sometimes shades of grey.

In a moment I'm going to ask you to ponder some of the big questions for yourself.  But let me just conclude with a couple more of my favourite quotes from Socrates...

  • What a lot of things there are a man can do without.
  • Ordinary people seem not to realise that those who really apply themselves in the right way to philosophy are directly and of their own accord preparing themselves for dying and death
  • An unexamined life is not worth living.
  • Here's one for an election year:  No man undertakes a trade he has not learned, even the meanest; yet everyone thinks himself sufficiently qualified for the hardest of all trades, that of government. 
  • And finally, with his tongue firmly in his cheek, Socrates said, "By all means get married. If you get a good wife you will become happy, and if you get a bad one you will become a philosopher".

Further reading:  
For those wishing to dip their toe into the world of philosophy, I heartily recommend "Sophie's World" by Jostein Gaarder

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