The unending conversation
John Rackley reflects on the fact that questions about God, faith, and the universe have been talked about for centuries. The fourth piece in The Emmaus Road Experience, the series from John and fellow Baptist minister John Weaver
Parents will know the time when they realise their toddler is listening to the conversation at the meal table and they have to start s-p-e-l-l-i-n-g out what they are saying because their child isn’t old enough to understand. But eventually that is not enough. The little boy or girl is ready to join in the conversation. It is a conversation which will not stop until they like each of us have our voice silenced in death.
When we arrive on the scene we join multiple conversations. They have been going on long before we were conceived and will continue long after we have left the scene.
The Church contributes one such unending conversation. It is about God, Jesus and faith. It is a story like the many others that surround us throughout our life. I joined that particular conversation from Sunday School days. Since then the conversation has gone on in my youth leaders’ home, the college lecture hall, reading the Bible and its commentaries, ministering in four churches, meeting people of other churches and faiths and now latterly in a quieter time where I wait to be asked my opinion and realise the language of today’s Church is not necessarily one with which I am familiar or wish to use myself.
In my life story I have met a fascinating range of people from all over the world in places as various as Bangladesh, the West Bank, Hungary, Iona, South Korea and China, as well as numerous offices of various religious officials. I cannot count the number of books, sermons, lectures and now e-communications I have used to talk and think about God.
Occasionally I have managed to be silent enough to pray and linger on the edge of eternity.
It’s been rather like I’m in a large room with all sorts of people chatting away. Sometimes one of them will come up to me and tell me what they think and eventually I find my voice and offer my own thoughts about God. Then I notice this attracts the attention of others and some seem to be checking up on me. I feel pressurised to say what they approve of and when I don’t some may move away and start to avoid me. This can be a lonely experience; to be in a roomful of people all talking but many not to me.
But eventually I find some fellow-travellers who ask the same questions and seek some answers. And then comes the time when I notice people who had been vocal are no longer in sight. They have left the room and so will I – but the conversation will continue.
The metaphor of ‘unending conversation’ was first developed by Kenneth Burke who was a North American literary theorist (in The philosophy of Literary Form, 1941 and cited by Marcus Borg, Convictions, London: SPCK, 2014). It has attracted much analysis and comment ever since and has been drawn into the notion of the ‘unfinished’ nature of all things. It has parallels not only in the world of science but also music and art.
I find the metaphor both salient and moving. It reminds me that at whatever point I come on the scene I may be noticed, but by and large I am only a transient part of what was happening before me and it will continue long after I have had my time.
I want to place this metaphor ‘unending conversation’ at the heart of our discussion of God, Jesus and story. Questions about God, faith, the Universe, Jesus as Son of God have been talked about for centuries. The day and age in which I exist is the only experience I have, but that conversation began without me and will continue without me. It will use language and image that will suit its time and just as it is informed by the past it cannot hold the future to its own terms. The language of belief is honoured in creed, treatise, Papal Bull and Charles Wesley hymns. They offer an inheritance. They describe the trajectory of belief. But they will only travel as far as they still convey meaning to faith. They may bear seeds for the future which they will not see flourish.
So since what I believe arises from an ‘unending conversation’ then I cannot give my beliefs any greater status than self-chosen convictions which may at any time be altered or adjusted according to how I share the conversation. They have a limited shelf-life.
It was Rowan Williams, I believe, who suggested that the Gospel means that ‘God is waiting to have a conversation with each one of us’. This reminds me that in this discussion of faith and its long journey, I and others in the room are not the only ones in conversation. When Jesus appeared to the disciples on the road to Emmaus he explained to them the unending conversation which God had with the people of Israel recorded in the Old Testament scriptures and then continues in his discussion with them.
The early Christian writer declared ‘In the beginning was the Word’ (John 1:1). God is a talker. God creates and appeals to the human search for purpose and meaning. This too is an ‘unending conversation’. In one of his letters (1 John 3:1-2 NRSV) he declares:
See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. Beloved we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.
He is exploring the ‘unfinished-nature‘ of things. To ‘abide in Christ’ is to be on a journey of discovery. It is a movement into God’s knowledge of us. God knows what is hidden from us. The conversation does not end with our end. God’s relationship with me is not ended by my apparent demise.
The Venerable Bede in his History of the English Church and People Book 4 (Trans: L S Price, London: Penguin, 1956) tells this story.
The present life of men on earth O king seems to me to be like this:
When you are sitting at dinner
With your chiefs and ministers in wintertime
One of the sparrows from outside
Flew very quickly through the hall,
As if it came in through one door
And soon went out through the other.
In that actual time it is indoors
It is not touched by the winter’s storm;
But yet the tiny period of calm
Is over in a moment,
And having come out of the winter
It returns to the winter
And slips out of our sight.
Man’s life appears to be more or less like this;
And of what may follow it,
Or what preceded it,
We are absolutely ignorant.
According to the Venerable Bede all we are is a lone sparrow who catches the eye. We have time to soar and catch flight, but then we descend and return to whence we came and the place of our arrival sees us no more. But surely that is insufficient though hauntingly perceptive? Sparrows do more than fly; they gather, they chatter and nibble nuts. We might justifiably suggest that we are chattering sparrows who have their time and then are seen and heard no more.
But to introduce God into the conversation is to change its nature. Our story is fundamentally changed when an agency beyond the time/space dimension in which I live is given room in the room.
This is where the story of the sparrow in the hall begins to show its limitations. Both the king and his seer are cast in the role of observer. But they are just as much a creature which has come into the room as the sparrow. The sparrow may not be able to describe the winter from which it has flown or to which it returns but why should the king and his adviser consider that winter is sufficient a description of what we have come from and to which we might return?
We may excuse him his ignorance but be gratified for his story of the sparrow. It is a haunting image which reminds us to be humble and not be too certain of our certainties be they based in commonly excepted authorities such as the Church, the Bible or our chosen theological persuasion.
And perhaps in the end be consoled to remember that once lived a man who declared that God even notices the fall of a sparrow.
John Weaver will continue the unending conversation as an aspect of ministry in the next article.
Baptist ministers John Rackley and John Weaver have been working for four years on a project entitled 'Faith Journey as Theology', exploring how their lived Christian lives shape their theology. They first presented this at Theology Live at Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church in January 2019. From this meeting others have joined them in reflecting on faith journey as theology.
They are now at the stage of putting these discussions together. The six part series includes:
Jesus the Emmaus Road Companion
Faith, God and Story - the principles of faith as story
Travelling together - the story of our conversations
The unending conversation
The Emmaus story as a model for ministry
Faith Journey as Story: an invitation for self reflection
John Rackley: firstname.lastname@example.org
John Weaver: email@example.com
Image | Korney Violin | Unsplash
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