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Hallo again to all.

We remember once, long ago, listening to a conversation between two teenaged students grappling with an assignment for their music class. Asked to choose a popular song and write about the meaning that the lyrics conveyed, the first student picked the song 'Blowing in the Wind', by Bob Dylan, whose lyrics include the lines

The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind;
The answer is blowing in the wind.

Ths student wrote in a long essay that the songwriter was trying to convey a sense of ambiguity and doubt, by talking about answers blowing in the wind.Mr Joe Tex

The second student chose the immortal song 'Skinny Legs and All', by Joe Tex, whose lyrics include the lines

I don't want no woman with no skinny legs.

That student wrote a short essay that the songwriter was clearly trying to convey that he did not like women with skinny legs.

Each student received the assignment directly from the teacher, not through an intermediary, yet the two formed radically different interpretations of it. One thought that meaning was symbolic; the other thought meaning was literal. This deep divide on a simple issue was a good lesson for us, though we did not at the time recognize how Anglican it was.

The great Anglican mystic Evelyn Underhill defined mysticism as:

The direct intuition or experience of God; and a mystic is a person who has, to a greater or less degree, such a direct experience — one whose religion and life are centered, not merely on an accepted belief or practice, but on that which the person regards as first hand personal knowledge.*

It all sounds good; first-hand knowledge indeed, whether symbolic or literal.

But what do we do when first-hand experiences differ? Any barrister can tell you stories of opposite testimony from two eyewitnesses at the same event. Or any poet... Take this stanza of 'The Everlasting Gospel' by William Blake, circa 1795:Mr William Blake

The vision of Christ that thou dost see
Is my vision’s greatest enemy.
Thine has a great hook nose like thine;
Mine has a snub nose like to mine.
Thine is the Friend of all Mankind;
Mine speaks in parables to the blind.
Thine loves the same world that mine hates;
Thy heaven doors are my hell gates.
Socrates taught what Meletus
Loath’d as a nation’s bitterest curse,
And Caiaphas was in his own mind
A benefactor to mankind.
Both read the Bible day and night,
But thou read’st black where I read white.

Countless observers have through the centuries noted that people form opposing views of what they see: experiencing the same event, doing the same school assignment, or reading the same Bible passage can convey different meaning to different people. What do we do when someone tells us that he has had a personal conversation with God, in which God told him to wear green or to not eat meat or to vote Labour? How can we discount someone else's personal experience with God just because it differs from our own? Do we form networks of people who think the same way we do, excluding and condemning those who are different from us? Do we accept everything and everyone, without judgment? Where is the via media?

Some churches demand coherence and strict adherence to doctrine, others accept any belief as long as the believer attends regularly. To us the essence of Anglican Christianity is that, within the guidelines of scripture, tradition, and reason, we can agree to disagree but come to the same Table — even if on different sides. We cleave to the middle way, in which we each have whatever level of personal relationship with God we are comfortable with, relying on corporate worship to keep us centred within the boundaries of love.

See you next week.

Brian Reid's signature
Cynthia McFarland
Brian Reid

Last updated: 8 February 2004

*The Mystics of the Church, Morehouse 1988.

A thin blue line
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