11th February 2018
This evening, we are looking at what the New Testament means by repentance. But of course, we all know that already, don’t we. You’re all wretched sinners who do nasty things with every nanosecond of your day. (What I read in the Porters Lodge report is only the tip of the iceberg).
So, the only way you can wipe your moral slate and gain access to a post mortem bliss of an eternal shampoo advert with harps and smug satisfaction, is to repent. Either of this or that particular misdeed, or you need to apologise for your entire life. That’s the caricature shared by as many believers as unbelievers, but it’s quite a long way from the New Testament.
To begin with, one of the crucial aspects of repentance in the Gospels, concerns your ability to change your mind. And we all know, of course, that open mindedness is a cardinal virtue in secular society – and that anyone can be open-minded… can’t they? I can’t help feeling there’s something a rather glib about open-mindedness as some high-sounding easily doable super-virtue. To our ancestors, the belief that you can just click your fingers and decide to become open-minded would seem monumentally naïve. Surely, it’s really easy to change your mind?
And at a superficial level, that is indeed one meaning of the word repentance – in fact it comes from the Greek meaning literally, ‘after-thought’. You thought Manchester United were the best, now you think it’s Manchester City. You have changed your mind. Simple. Easy. Unless it’s something you care about a little more fully than hoofing a bag of wind around a large flat field.
All you really need to do is read the comments section on a Youtube video, or a Guardian article or something equally serious. And how often – it the civilized debates that ensue – do you read, ‘Oh, thank you for highlighting my stupidity, and redeeming me from my hitherto ignorant state. I have now changed my mind.’? Several decades before the advent of Youtube, the philosopher Socrates had noticed the same human incapacity for openness. In Plato’s famous analogy of the cave – those philosophers who enter the cave to help those who have been ideologically imprisoned within a false worldview – face an impossible task. If the prisoners can get their hands on their would-be liberator, says Plato, they would kill him.
Thinking openly is dangerous, difficult, and nearly impossible work. This is why Plato, almost 2000 years before Montaigne, said that to philosophize is to learn how to die. The near impossibility of changing your mind is something that was also profoundly appreciated by the authors of the New Testament.
That is what was highlighted in our Gospel Reading. A Baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins sounds like a bizarrely dated religious rite for those who have failed to adjust to the 21st Century. But let’s just consider each element briefly. The first Chaplain of Robinson College was Called David Stacey, and he has written about Prophetic Actions in the Old Testament. Ancient Jewish Prophets would perform symbolic actions that would be played out in history. So for instance, they would shave their heads, smash pots, buy plots of land right next to where an invading army was about to march. And John the Baptist, was a prophet. And Baptism was a brutal, violent prophetic act.
So, when John stands there in the Jordan River, he grabs hold of an individual Israelite – and effectively says, ‘here is what is about to happen to your country’. And he smashes them beneath the water, which symbolises a grave, so that when they come back up – they rise to a new way of being. And this is exactly what happened to Israel – at the centre of the nation’s life and for Jews scattered around the globe – the Temple lay at the heart of their ideology. But a generation later, the Roman Army arrived in Jerusalem – and reduced that Temple into a pile of smouldering debris. Bang when the prevailing Jewish worldview. Israel after the Temple needed a new mindset. And the word for repentance means a mind-set that follows on from a previous mindset, as one ideology is displaced by another.
What was the principle function of the Temple in Jerusalem, before it fell? It was the forgiveness of sins. We don’t have time today to go into that, but whatever else it means – it describes a new age, an era in which Israel was no longer subjected to oppression and humiliation, but could enjoy Yahweh’s blessing.
So when you put all that together: a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, was an invitation to inhabit a new ideology, a new mindset, a new worldview, a new way of identifying your place in the universe. But – it was traumatic, it entailed death, and if you were over committed to your worldview, it wasn’t going to happen. At least not, until the Romans arrived and forced everyone into a new worldview. The New Testament is then concerned with unpacking precisely what it means to abandon one cherished ideology in favour of another.
I suppose you have to be careful when it comes to using words like ideology. I notice Anna Soubry has been doing a lot of that this week – in a way that is perfectly natural. Those to the left of me, are being ideological. Those to the right of me, are being ideological. Here in the sensible, civilized middle ground – we are just acting in accordance what is right and natural and proper.
Ideology is perhaps better understood as the prevailing logic in which your ideas take shape. For many, ideology refers not only to what you think, but to the processes by which your thoughts take shape. You cannot have an idea without an ideology. Or – if I remember Carl Jung properly – people don’t have ideas, ideas have people. In this light, those who claim to be free from all ideology, are those most hopelessly imprisoned by it. Or put differently, ideology only works fully when it is invisible and undetectable to those inside it. And from this perspective – Jesus’s parables are sheer brilliance, because they expose ideologies people didn’t realise they treasured.
People don’t have ideas, ideas have people. Or in Platonic terms, ideas imprison people. Or in scriptural terms, ideas imprison people hopelessly – which is why changing your ideas is a near miraculous event. It’s why Baptism symbolises both death and resurrection. But of course, ideas are not simply events occurring in the head of an individual.
There is a full-blown physicality to the act of baptism, just as there is a physically to the meal by which Christians remember the acts of Jesus. You could even say that this is a meal which draws attention to what happened when Jesus of Nazareth entered the Cave of Plato. As Socrates predicted, they got their hands on him and killed him. But Christian tradition claims that he walked out of the cave nevertheless, and this is a meal shared by those who claim to have followed him out.
Rev Dr Simon Perry