To borrow an analogy from G.K. Chesterton (from Orthodoxy), I feel like the yachtsman who bravely set sail to discover new lands, but, due to navigation errors, finds himself off the coast of southern England some months later. Unaware of his mistake he bravely rows to the shore to plant the English flag and claim the new territory for the Crown. Surprisingly the natives speak English, and — to cut a long story short — he is soon enjoying some well-earned fish and chips, albeit with slight embarrassment.
And so here I am — surveying my new territory with a sense of wonder, but the realisation is dawning that it’s probably the place I left a few months ago — well, to be fair, probably many years ago. But, even if it doesn’t look so different, it certainly feels that way. Nothing seems the same as it was before, or is it me that’s changed? Maybe it’s a bit of both. Certainly I have changed — my travels in new theological lands have brought me back to this one with a new sense of perspective: things are familiar but somehow not the same — the fish and chips don’t taste quite the same as they used to. But I’m sure, equally, that I haven’t landed in the same place: the accents are different; I can’t quite put my finger on it at the moment, but there’s something that isn’t quite right — or rather, something is more right than it was before.
One thing I am sure of: I used to think that I lived in the only Christian land in the world. I knew it was a land with different counties with politically diverse town councils — most, it has to be said — at odds with each other. One county I used to hate visiting was that presided over by Calvin who was of the firm opinion (as evidenced by the parish magazine and what the local population believed) that his was the only truly Christian county, and that the rest of the population was destined to burn forever, courtesy of his loving god. It was a place that smelled of decay and premature burial. I soon left that place and travelled to places where it was easier to breathe and — quite frankly — easier enjoy a good glass of wine without being frowned on. Life — as they say, and I wholeheartedly agree — is truly too short for bad wine.
So having left these shores it was quite a shock to discover other lands most definitely Christian, but where people dressed in a peculiarly odd fashion — some wearing hardly any clothes at all. Most disconcerting. It was fun, though, to try the local equivalent of fish and chips. Can’t say that I loved the curry dumplings that we had for breakfast in Malaysia, but I would not have missed the experience for the world.
Anyway, I digress. So here I am, back on English shores beginning to rediscover where I was born. Having been away for so long, so many things look different and yet strangely familiar. The thought of going back to those stuffy churches that smelled more like the school biology lab sends a shiver down my spine, so that’s not on the agenda. If there’s one thing I’ve learned on my travels it’s that human beings were meant to breathe — and breathe deeply of God’s good, fresh air. I’ve also learned that live puppies are much more fun to play with than dead mice preserved in formaldehyde.
So as I walk around this fair isle, it’s amazing how green the grass looks, and how the air tastes like a good pint of ale after a long walk in the hills. I even gaze down with wonder at my old, ageing body (although let’s not go into details here). The point is this: things are the same, but they’re not. I look with different eyes; with the perspective of travel and the wisdom (well, I like to think so) of age.
I’m not blaming those who live in Calvinshire or Evangelicaland or — dare I say it? — Charismaville (a curious place on the edge of normality). Having lived in some of these places for a while myself I admire those who are able to survive with such tenacity on such meagre rations, and — I humbly suggest — are simply believing what they’ve been told to believe. I certainly did — in fact I was told that to question was the mark of the Antichrist, although in passing I would just like to point out that Jesus asked more questions than most. Truth (as Milton reminded us), even if it really is true, is heresy for those who have just received it as a piece of second-hand dogma without turning it over in their hands a few times before putting it in their pocket. Sadly my pockets have been filled with a lot of — how can I put this without offending those of you with a delicate nature? — that substance which Paul euphemistically called ‘rubbish’.
Returning briefly to Calvin. I’m sure he was a good man (I know that sounds a bit patronising), but I think he should have got out more, theologically speaking, for had he not insisted on such a separation between Father and Son he would have perhaps realised that both were, in essence, love, and love doesn’t torture people for ever. It’s easy to blame him — but he was only reacting to the nonsense he saw going on around him in the name of Christianity, and he has my admiration for speaking out.
But the question for us is this: are we willing to get out more? I’m aware that I can only live in today’s light, and on the daily bread that my Father gives me. Yesterday’s manna doesn’t keep, and soon begins to stink if it’s stored for too long. I suppose I’m mixing analogies here — sorry. What I mean to say is this: travelling does you a power of good, even if you end up back at home one day.