I've finished reading Roger McGough's Collected Poems and I'm now part way through his Autobiography, Said and Done. He handles prose as well as he does verse. It's lively, funny, witty, wise stuff covering a particularly interesting period: the Mersey scene of the 60s and beyond of which he was an integral part. Before he gets to that bit though, near the beginning, speaking of his boyhood Catholicism he has this to say:
"The unimaginable force that governs us, the benevolent energy behind all we see and do, has been oversimplified in the excitement of evangelism, and in their attempts to personalise God, artists have anthropomorphised a concept that is beyond human comprehension, so many of us have come to reject religion. Except on those evenings as the light drains away into the horizon, and the old questions rise up again and we lift up our eyes from the ground and search for answers beyond the stars."
(Said and Done p41)
I had my Christian beginnings in a Church which did indeed oversimplify in the excitement of evangelism, endeavouring to make the Gospel simple enough that every person could understand it in half an hour. This was an aim that they achieved in Spades, but unfortunately if you were in the church for any more than half an hour, the simple Gospel could begin to pall just a tad. The anthropomorphised God we worshiped with such experiential fervour gave me an exciting (and perhaps, for me, the only possible) entry into the Christian faith but has not been able to sustain me through the decades. The questions are too big to be shoehorned into Pentecostal sureties. Where did I come from and where am I going and why? How did this amazing universe begin and what is it anyway? Who am I that looks out through these eyes and what is this ME that keeps getting in the way of the view? Is there an unimaginable force that governs us and is it benevolent?
The story is told of Karl Barth, being asked in an interview what was the greatest theological truth he had learned. He replied, without hesitation, "Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so." I guess he could only give that answer if he knew that the simplistic Sunday School song and Der Kirchliche Dogmatik were saying pretty much the same thing. Which means that the Sunday School song has to be seen not as literal truth but poetically, as an allusion to much deeper truths - the truths contained in Der Kirchliche Dogmatik . But of course, if we see this, we have to acknowledge that the truths in Barth's masterwork are also provisional, also allusional; also, in a sense, poetic, as are all our answers to the great questions, always.
How often do we forget that all theological truth is metaphorical? When people, who have palled at our literal acceptance of provisional truth, see the light draining away into the horizon, does our quest for reassuring certainty hinder our attempts to make known the unimaginable force that governs us?
Perhaps it is easier for a Catholic or an Orthodox, whose worship is so overtly dramatic and metaphorical, to grasp this. Perhaps it is harder for us Protestants whose preoccupation with The Word and its exposition can fool us into thinking that the hard won intellectual insights we arrive at are in some way final or absolute. Religious truth has to do with the infinite; therefore we are never going to arrive. To be sure, there are waystages and points along the way when we have some of the uncertainties of the past explained, but there is always a further on. This doesn't mean we are forever lost, however, for there is a certainty which comes not from arriving at the right answers but from knowing that we are engaged in asking the right questions.