So Philip ran up to [the Ethiopian eunuch in the chariot] and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.” The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. – Acts 8:30-35
Dover Beach by Matthew Arnold
The sea is calm to-night.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand;
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.
Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Agaean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
One quality that makes a good poem a good poem is that it can mean different things to different people at different times. Or to put it another way, people can argue over it!
Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” is one such poem.
Some find it dark and hopeless. The eternal note of sadness, the melancholy retreat of the Sea of Faith and the naked shingles of the world announce the author’s position – it’s not worth it anymore.
Others read the poem differently and find it beautiful and liberating.
Today – I find myself in the latter camp.
The conflict, which I vaguely remember from my Brit Lit I class back in college, has to do with the difficulty of understanding the openings lines of the poem which describe a calm sea and an inviting air with much of the rest of the poem which is less settled. And even if you recognize that the sea being described in the middle stanzas is the sea of yesterday, that Arnold is contrasting two different times and states of the sea of faith, he never seems to return to any of the first lines’ hopefulness. Indeed the last line of his poem is one of the more famous lines in British Literature – “Where ignorant armies clash by night.” To what does this refer, we might ask, echoing the confusion of the Ethiopian eunuch of our reading from Acts.
For me the poem holds forth a conversation about the end of religion – not in the Nietzschean sense of meaninglessness — but in the sense that there is no longer a realm of the supernatural where meaning is generated and stored and retrieved. The ignorant armies that clash by night then refers to the long struggle against the two-world theory of religion which Emile Durkheim made famous: “The division of the world into two domains, the one containing all that is sacred, the other all that is profane, is the distinctive trait of religious thought.”
Durkheim points out that sacred things are very diverse: they may include spirit-beings, beliefs, times, persons, rituals, buildings, spaces, amulets, traditions and institutions. The most general characteristic of the sacred is that it is profoundly Other: so different that it is only glimpsed by mere mortals – so Other that we have taken to referring to it as all-powerful. Religious transformation is an experience of ascension, if only for a brief period of time, and symbolized in ancient religious texts by experiences of mountain top chats with God, of fire touching one’s lips, of walking through the sea, of death and rebirth. The two-realm theory of God and its accompanying notion of God’s omnipotence leads directly to the orthodox view of Jesus – the one Philip presumably told the eunuch – God had from the beginning ordained one to come and die for us – the only possible offering that could be made to an all-powerful God in repayment for our destructive ways.
Arnold sees the retreat of the sea of faith, not as the loss of what is important, but as the inevitable loss of a certain kind of faith – the kind of faith that wants to take comfort in the notion of an omnipotent God, a God distant, but in control. The God in whom we can bury our nakedness and therefore, also our troubles and find solace.
If the poem were only that, it would be uninteresting, but Arnold sees where the end of religion is also the beginning of the glimmer of the sacred light in the ordinary. It can be real possibility of hope for a world in which the sacred has simply disappeared. But it is precisely this disappearance, like the disappearance of a crutch, that lets love be true. To be true-to-love, we must experience the land before us – so various, so beautiful, so new, but also so difficult and full of tragedy and sorrow.
Love and moral-action-in the-world are connected this way.
Arnold’s aim and golden vision is love. Not the cozy love that suggests that all we need to do is “believe,” and our issues will take care of themselves – that position has lead to the not-intractable problems in the middles east, that position has led to the not intractable problems of global environmental destruction – the list could go on. By assuming that because our faith tradition said that, for example Jerusalem should be won, or that nature should be dominated and extracted, we can ignore the results of these actions and count on a blessed reward in some other world, we have virtually guaranteed it – we have failed to see in the night because we have failed to grasp the light of love.
I want us to think about “Dover Beach” this morning because it describes the 21st century religious condition – the sacred has disappeared and no longer do 1/3 of young adults put any credence in a two-world theory, or find value in ritual that continues to be described as God’s deigning to come down to us for the moment, or prayer understood as miracle generating.
So, when the latest poll from the Pew Forum on Religion and the Public was released last week, I was not at all surprised to find that not only has the trend of church decline since the 1970’s continued, it has accelerated in the last decade. In a nutshell, that study, which is one of the most widely respected studies on religion and public life in America, found that 1/5 of adults do not identify with any religion. More significantly, the youngest cohort – those in their 20’s and 30’s 1 of every three self-identifies as not religious. Many of those indicate they have no desire to be spiritual or to be in any way, shape or form connected with religious institutions.
I don’t believe this necessarily bodes poorly for the church. It bodes poorly for a church which continues to try to do theology in the way of Philip from our reading today, who when asked by the eunuch to explain the scriptures did so by uncritically interpreting the whole of Jewish scriptures as prefiguring Jesus. I’m not saying the Philip is to be blamed for what he did. I’m saying that we (the church) are to be blamed for following his approach. We have treated the our scriptural traditions with rough shod impunity, finding in them what we will to support our fear of being left naked on the cold shingles of the world – to give us comfort in our dying days. And, we have refused, in our reading of the scriptures to hear Jesus’ call to take the blinders from our eyes and see that our neighbors are the poor, Jesus call to work for fairness in our economies, Jesus’ call to open our eyes to the kingdom of heaven in our midst and to sacralize all of our work and all of our living, so that no longer may we abuse the environment, no longer may we ignore the growing chasm between those of us who are rich and the poor.
Andrew Furlong is a defrocked Episcopal priest in the United Kingdom. Actually, he was brought before the church on a heresy trial, after refusing to recant his views about the nature of Jesus. That trial was the culmination of years of struggle, trying to be true-to-love and honest with himself and his church about what that love meant. As long as he refused to believe that Jesus was God and man, both natures in one, who was offered as a sacrifice for our sins, the church would not stop hounding him. Three days before his trial, he resigned his post.
He writes about that moment his his book, Tried for Heresy: a 21st Century Journey of Faith:
I consider that religious faith finds its most appropriate home, and only authentic home in a pluralist setting characterized by metaphor and symbolism, diversity and debate, tolerance and respect, innovative thinking and provisionality, and critiquing and acknowledgement of mistaken or outdated interpretations. In my view the Christian world is a world embraced by one great mysterious love. I look on people, who claim for themselves a Christian identity, as both struggling to, and as also resisting, living out their response to that ultimately faithful mystery which I call “God.” My vision of the church, at its best, is not of a people at enmity with each other because of the different ways in which they express their beliefs, . . . but a vision of a people struggling together in a common task.
That task, I believe, and try to call you and me to engaging each week, is to live a “live journey of faith” – that is a journey marked by conversation and diversity, by tolerance and respect, and by a sense that in all of that lies the mystery of God’s utterly unearned gift of love. Jesus asks – what will you do? The way of Philip is dead. Chose instead the way of love – and be given, by the one great source of love, the courage to walk a new path, to make a whole life – to live not in enmity with with other’s different conversations, but to struggle together in our common task for the common good.