Hugh Baker revisits the three-legged stool

OVER THE LAST FEW months I’ve been reflecting on Professor Leslie Fairchild’s article in January’s New Directions on Quadrilaterals of the Lambeth Type. Interestingly, only three sides of the Quadrilateral, Scripture, Tradition and Reason, meant anything to him. Maybe because he comes from the Groves of Academe, Experience rings no bells for him “… and possibly Experience, whatever that amorphous concept means…” Indeed he regards it as a bolt-on extra “… and now Experience” of a Johnny-come-lately nature.

I would like to suggest exactly the opposite: that Experience is primary. How did there emerge the Church, this body of people viewing Scripture in the light of Tradition and Reason, in the first place? This Church’s birth is summed up in I Corinthians 15: 5–6 “he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers” and continues in like fashion in verses 7 and 8: “he appeared to James, then to all the Apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also”. Granted, this Experience of the Risen Christ doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Saul withdraws from public life for three years (Galatians 1:18) to reflect on his Damascus Experience, and allows it to rearrange his inner furniture. Without Scripture, Tradition and Reason, Thomas’s testimony may have been “this dead geezer with holes in his hands turned up in the locked-up house” rather than “My Lord and my God!” Even so, the birth of the Church is a demonstration of Christ’s words “You did not choose me; but I have chosen you”. Trace the word group “choose”, “chosen” etc. through a Concordance, and the egotistical, God-really-needs-me-to-build-His-Kingdom part of us will feel distinctly uncomfortable. God quietly, but consistently makes it clear that he is in charge of history, and chooses whom he will.

‘This, as Professor Fairchild ably demonstrates, is the exact opposite to Enlightenment thought, which places Me at the centre of things, with reality defined by what I am able to understand. Other contributors to this magazine have traced the outworkings, in Church and Society, of the Enlightenment in succeeding centuries. I want to suggest that lack of Experience led to the Enlightenment in the first place.

I was ordained in 1971 into a unique civilization. There had never been a civilization like it before, and since I have been ordained we have seen it passing away. It was a civilization without belief in the supernatural. Every other civilization there had been implicitly believed certain things: (a) the supernatural exists and affects us; (b) a civilization prospers under the protection of one or more of these gods; (c) our Leader is the connection between us, and what we see, and the supernatural realities which we may not often see; (d) our civilization is, therefore, a supernaturally ordained religious community, its leadership’s civil or military functions stem from its religious position.

By 1971, the Church had been trying for some decades to wriggle out of this supernatural inheritance. It was a profound embarrassment. Belief in this stuff may be all right in Ongobongoland; but we are dealing, in developed countries, with a sophisticated audience, too wise to entertain the idea of angels.

Such an analysis is profoundly condescending to the peoples of great Empires now past (and to contemporary Africans, Bishop Spong?), and in its condescension completely misses the point: intelligent, cultured, educated people in other societies believed in the supernatural because they experienced it. We, by and large, didn’t believe in the supernatural because, by and large we didn’t experience it

Enlightenment people turned to Reason for their guide because to them the gods were no longer real. Why was this? Well, imagine if you will, the First World War. Two great armies are dug into the trenches. If you live behind those trenches, whether you like it or not, you are under their control. In the whole of this war-torn continent, there is only one place where you can carry on life without having to take those armies into account; and that is the narrow, fragile strip of No Man’s Land.

Imagine now an ant hill in the middle of No Man’s Land, a hundred yards from each forward trench. The ants go about their daily life with no notion of what is happening outside their little world. One day, the Reverend Aloysius Ant stands on top of the ant hill and views the great conflict in progress. Next Sunday in Church (St Antony’s) he reports his findings to his congregation. There is a great, unseen cosmos out there, he tells them, peopled by Beings so massive that an ant could rest between their toes. Only Antlican politeness prevents his hearers from rolling about in helpless laughter. Beings with only four legs? Standing and moving on only two of them? Only a lunatic could see reality as anything other than six-legged.

By the time the Enlightenment came to fruition, Europe had been the No Man’s Land for centuries. The Church had never, since the rise of Christendom, completely overcome the Devil. Even so, it had fought a goal-less draw with the Powers of Darkness, to such a degree that Europeans were able to be born and to grow up without being harassed by Experience of the Demonic. The Vision of Heaven may have been outside most European’s experience, be they believers, agnostics or atheists; but at least Visitations from hell were equally alien to them.

African friends of mine are not as fortunate. Even those born into Christian homes and baptized as infants sometimes need specific prayer, for (as they put it) “the nightmares to stop”. They, at least have been born in a society where the supernatural, however oppressive, was able to make itself known.

Scripture itself acknowledges that Experience, for some, is essential or helpful to belief. Consider, for example, a pattern we find in Mark chapter 16: “When they heard that Jesus was alive and that she had seen him they did not believe it… These returned and reported it to the rest; but they did not believe them either. [Jesus] rebuked them for their lack of faith and their stubborn refusal to believe those who had seen him after he had risen” Blessed are those who have not Experienced, and yet believe!

I hope you’ll bear with those of us who, being part of the Enlightenment fall-out have needed Experience to bring us to faith.

Hugh J. Baker is parish priest of Fazeley, Drayton Bassett, Canwell and Hints in the diocese of Lichfield