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Hallo again to all.

Constant. Unchanging. Eternal. As it always has been. Those are words and concepts that one hears often in discussions about the church. We'd venture a guess that those discussions are constant, unchanging, and eternal, but we don't really have any way of knowing.

What does it mean to be constant? How can you tell if you are constant? How much can something change before you ought no longer call it unchanging? How do you measure change?

A Ouija boardSometimes it's easy. The Western Wall, for example, has been where it is, unchanging, for more than 2500 years. Unchanging, but not unchanged: the abrasion of the centuries has not spared its stones; we can only imagine what it looked like when the Second Temple was first built.

Sometimes it's hard. Is the bread that Jesus shared with his disciples made from the same grain that we use today? If it's not the same, how similar is it? Modern DNA analysis can tell when two samples are essentially identical, but is less accurate at quantifying similarity.

Sometimes it's impossible. Are the leaves on this old olive tree the same colour that its leaves were 1000 years ago when it was young? Colour involves not just matter and light but human perception; do my eyes see the colour green the same way as did the eyes of my ancestor of ten centuries ago? Is the light from the sun the same colour that it was 1000 years ago, or has it become more yellow or more blue? How might we know? For that matter, do the olives taste the same?

Absent a reliable means of telling when change has occurred, it is common for people to try to prevent change. A good way to become sceptical about human ability to prevent change is to gather some friends with a Ouija board and ask them all to help prevent the shuttle from moving. In the light, where participants can see whether or not the shuttle has moved, this task is possible. But in the dark, where there is no reasonable way to measure change, a group of people simply cannot hold the shuttle in one place, and don't realize that. Even if all of them are honestly trying to hold it in one place, the combination of muscles, nerves, and bones involved in each hand position will change even though the participants feel certain that it did not.

First page of a Chaucer manuscriptLanguage is especially vulnerable to the Ouija-style accumulation of imperceptible change despite the well-meaning efforts of many to keep language inerrant. When Geoffrey Chaucer wrote down the Canterbury Tales in the 14th century, words had a certain meaning that he learned from his family and teachers. Many of us memorised its prologue in school; it began:

Whan that Aprille, with hise shoures soote,
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours yronne,*

Since these Tales are the Word of Chaucer and not the Word of God, there is no stigma attached to arguing about what they mean. While the words are unchanged, their meaning is not. For centuries, scholars have interpreted and translated these 600-year-old accounts and stories into modern language, which is to say that they have attempted to find words and sentences whose modern meaning is the same as was the meaning of the words and sentences in which it was originally written. But how can they really know? The only way that we can be certain that the meaning of the modern edition of a Chaucer tale is the same as its author intended would be to resurrect him; he's said to be in Westminster Abbey, though, of course, we have no way of knowing for sure if those old dry bones belong to him.

The Bible is more than 3 times as old as the Canterbury Tales, and was written in a language that we hardly understand. The concept of 'the inerrant Word of God' appeals to us, if only we knew exactly what that Word was. If we knew for certain where lay the bones of St Paul, and could practice resurrection, we might ask him to further explain what he meant by some of the more befuddling passages. Absent that, we embrace the Anglican way of scripture, tradition, and reason to help our mortal selves know what to believe.

See you next week.

Cynthia's signature
Brian's signature
Cynthia McFarland
Brian Reid

Last updated: 1 May 2005

*Our spelling checker had apoplexy with that verse, so certain was it of the inerrant spelling of Englishe words.

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