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Via Intelligentiae (The Way of Understanding: A Sermon)

I’d like to begin with a quotation, not from Jeremy Taylor, nor even from Holy Scripture, but from the poet, W.H. Auden.  Auden was one of the great Christian poets of the last century.  Or perhaps I could put that better: of the poets of the last century, Auden was one of those most able to discern and convey the mystery of the Christian faith in all its length and breadth and height and depth.  He often chose to do that in a playful or ironic mode; but his irony arose not from rejection or ridicule, but from a keen sense of the complexities of what was at stake.  The poem I shall quote from is ‘The Truest Poetry Is the Most Feigning’.  Written in late 1953, it is a wry set of reflections on the power of poetry to bluff and bamboozle.  But its final stanza, while still in playful mood, gestures in a more constructive direction.  You should have a copy in your service sheets:

For given Man, by birth, by education,

Imago Dei who forgot his station,

The self-made creature who himself unmakes,

The only creature ever made who fakes,

With no more nature in his loving smile

Than in his theories of a natural style,

What but tall tales, the luck of verbal playing,

Can trick his lying nature into saying

That love, or truth in any serious sense,

Like orthodoxy, is a reticence?

Why have I read that to you?  Because I believe that Jeremy Taylor, whom we honour in this term’s series of sermons, was a master of the difficult art to which Auden gestures in his concluding question: Taylor was a master of the art of reticent orthodoxy.  And part of the purpose of Taylor’s famously involved literary style is to trick us into seeing what Auden sees: plain speaking is an artifice; a natural style is not innate; it has to be learned.  Taylor’s style, with its complex grammar, its rich imagery and abundant clauses, is far from natural.  Taylor’s writing is complex, but it is not opaque: it seeks to enter into the warp and weft of life’s tapestry and in doing so to show how that tapestry is only properly legible in the light of divine grace. 

Orthodoxy is a disputed term.  Some are drawn to it temperamentally, attracted by the promise of a well-defined body of right belief.  Others find the notion of orthodoxy makes them uneasy, not wishing the freedom of their belief to be constrained in a doctrinal straitjacket.  But people like Taylor and Auden see something in orthodoxy the promise of something greater and deeper.  For them orthodoxy is not a deposit of right belief to be embraced or rejected.  Instead, as Rowan Williams has put it, orthodoxy is a ‘tool’ rather than a ‘goal’: it is an ongoing process of disciplined attention, a continually renewed attempt to love more faithfully to the whole reality of God’s love (in all its breadth and length and height and depth).[1]  In this sense orthodoxy is not an answer, but a pointer towards a set of questions, questions that open out in to the unfolding mystery of divine love.

The work of Taylor that I have chosen for us to reflect upon tonight is a sermon he preached, towards the end of his life, in the year 1662, to the scholars of Trinity College, Dublin.  Like most seventeenth century sermons it would have lasted a good hour; much as I admire Taylor, I don’t aspire to emulate him on that score!  The text from which he preaches is tonight’s second lesson from the seventh chapter of the Gospel according to Saint John.  Taylor of course worked from the Authorized Version, so in his text Christ’s words were spoken thus: ‘If any man will do God’s will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself’.  In a more accessible translation those words are rendered like this: ‘Anyone who resolves to do the will of God will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own’ (John 7:17 NRSV).  John the Evangelist has Jesus speak those words to the Jews of Jerusalem.  They have questioned him: ‘How does this man have such learning, when he has never been taught?’  And Jesus’s reply, in short, is this: do not ask what I know or how I know, see what I do; the good news is lived before it is spoken; it is not a message, but a life; ‘Preach the Gospel at all times, use words if you must…’.

Taylor knows that he is preaching to a highly educated congregation – ‘an auditory of inquisitive persons’, as he puts it – so he sets out his argument rather in the style of a lecture.  Latin and Greek tags abound; references to authors classical and scriptural; there are allusions to the more recent history of the church, to continental theologians of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, to councils of the Church, ancient and new; to political events at home and abroad.  But this weight of learning is deployed rather in the same way that Auden marshalls his poetic powers in the poem with which we began: to draw attention to their insufficiency.

And let me tell you this [says Taylor] the great learning of the fathers was more owing to their piety than to their skill; more to God than to themselves’; [if you would prevail against error] …live according to truth: ‘whoever shall oppose you and the truth you walk by, may better be confuted by your lives than by your disputations.

So the orthodoxy to which Taylor is pointing us is not one that is best expressed by a learned defence of the ecumenical Councils, by a refutation of the five points of the Synod of Dort, by an exposition of the thirty-nine articles.  Taylor would certainly not be against any of those practices, but they cannot be the heart of the matter.  Creeds and councils – and the controversies that give them birth – are a necessary part of the life of faith; disputation and argument are not wrong; often they are a gift, because carried out in the right spirit they can lead us to a fuller apprehension of the truth.  But they are not the end; they are just the beginning.  They are rather like the stage directions between the lines of a play’s text: pointers to the way we should interpret and articulate what we have received.  As grammar helps us to speak and write fluently, so Christian doctrine is there to help us to live faithfully and truthfully and lovingly.

Taylor, like Auden, is remarkable for his understanding of both the dignity and the fallenness of the human being, of original blessing and original sin, of nature and grace.  For all the wickedness of the century in which he lived, Taylor refuses to see evil as all-pervasive.  He always starts with the assumption of humanity’s original blessedness, but he recognises that that blessedness is shot through at every stage with sin and self-deception and failure.  This is not, though, a cause for despair, just a stimulus to greater reliance of God.  ‘You shall love your crooked neighbour/with your crooked heart’, wrote W.H. Auden, and that captures very well Taylor’s sense of the challenge of Christian faith and life.[2]  Crooked as we are, walking God’s straight path is one on which we are always prone to stumble.

Here is Taylor on the nature of prayer (from another sermon).  Prayer is pictured as a lark ascending, but the image is not as blithe as we might expect:

For so I have seen a lark rising from his bed of grass, and soaring upwards, singing as he rises, and hopes to get to heaven, and climb above the clouds; but the poor bird was beaten back with the loud sighings of an eastern wind, and his motion made irregular and inconstant, descending more at every breath of the tempest, than it could recover by the liberation and frequent weighing of his wings; till the little creature was forced to sit down and pant, and stay till the storm was over;

and then it made a prosperous flight, and did rise and sing, as if it had learned music and motion from an angel, as he passed sometimes through the air, about his ministries here below: so is the prayer of a good man.[3]

In origin orthodoxy means ‘right praise’.  I’ve quoted Rowan Williams with approval: orthodoxy is not a goal, but a tool.  And yet, if we translate it strictly, perhaps orthodoxy is the goal after all.  ‘Right praise’ is the true end of the Christian life: right praise that is the worship of God, freely offered with every part of us, ‘our selves, our souls and bodies, […] fulfilled by God’s heavenly grace and benediction’.  On the tombstone of Archbishop Michael Ramsey in canterbury Cathedral are the words of St Irenaeus: ‘the glory of God is the living man, and the life of man is the vision of God’.  Our calling is to give glory to God, the giver of glory; to enter into the virtuous circle of divine love.  Again and again we are knocked off course, battered from our ascent by inner weakness and outer threat.  But, like Taylor’s lark, our lives are capable of prosperous flight: they can rise and sing.

The orthodoxy that Taylor commends is certainly reticent, but it isn’t hesitant or shame-faced.  The human being, in Auden’s words, is ‘the only creature ever made who fakes’.  Believing that we are ‘self-made’, we constantly unmake ourselves.  Yet by birth, by education, we are ‘Imago Dei’, the image of God; when we are fully alive, God is glorfied in us and we in God.  ‘The Lord be with you’, sings the officiant at Evensong; ‘and with thy Spirit’, we respond.  Brief words, easily overlooked, but they go to the heart of the matter: our worship is there to point us to God at work in us: ‘nearer to us than we are to ourselves and higher than the highest that is within us’, as St Augustine put it.  In the words of another sermon, of Saint Paul, ‘God indeed is not far from each of us.  For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’”.  This is the ‘divine principle within’, to which Jeremy Taylor points us.

a good man is united unto God, as a flame touches a flame, and combines into splendour and to glory; so is the spirit of a man united unto Christ by the Spirit of God. These are the friends of God, and they best know God’s mind, and they only that are so know how much such men do know. They have a special ‘unction from above’: so that now you are come to the top of all; this is the highest round of the ladder, and the angels stand upon it: they dwell in love and contemplation, they worship and obey, but dispute not: and our quarrels and impertinent wranglings about religion are nothing else but the want of the measures of this state. Our light is like a candle; every wind of vain doctrine blows it out, or spends the wax, and makes the light tremulous; but the lights of heaven are fixed and bright, and shine for ever.


[1] ‘What is Catholic Orthodoxy?’ in Leech and Williams (eds), Essays Catholic and Radical (1983)

[2] ‘As I Walked Out One Evening’.

[3] ‘The Return of Prayers’, Taylor, Works (ed. Heber, 1839), Volume 5.