Any time you use a word there is danger that when you use it, it means one thing, but when another uses it, it means something else; that impersonal forces, perhaps money, or corporations, or political force, exert power over our language, rendering the meaning of our word different to what we intended. One way to get around this problem is to use language sparingly, to rest in the safety of mutual silence. We can’t disagree if we just sit quietly. If our lived condition is full of ambiguity, perhaps it would serve us well to be less clear, to guard against the clearly expressed thought. What does a Unitarian believe? Perhaps it a positive that that is a difficult question to answer. Perhaps our ambiguity, the difficulty of pinning us down, allows us to echo more closely something of the human condition. There is a Wittgenstein quote I like. It goes, ‘Even to have expressed a false thought boldly and clearly is to have gained a great deal.’ But, what has been gained?
Sometimes cultural normative language, or normative ways of thinking, or certain ideas, wedded deeply to our sense of identity, become so enmeshed within the fabric of who we are that it becomes difficult to even see falsities as the falsities they are. Our ignorance becomes a badge of pride, which defines us as the whoever we are. If we ourselves overcome such ignorance, and die to an old way of thinking, and as such we are able to express a false thought boldly and clearly as a false thought and recognise it as such, then this is some personal growth. And personal growth has value? Or perhaps our insight, the scales that have fallen from our eyes, only serves to drive a wedge between those who see the falsity and those who do not. Those who are with me, and get it, as I do, and those who do not. No, there must be a contention of viewpoints. You can’t simply express truth from one perspective; such would be preposterous. No, you are to be judged by how you treat the least among you. You are to be judged by how you treat those who can least bear this life. But judged by who, or what? Well, by yourselves I guess. A small voice within us calls us to listen with gentle compassion, and not allow our opinion, the weight of our character, to crush the small person, but to hold them in safe space.
Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. To trap him in his words, or in his omission of words. To trap him with crafty question, which will scupper his logic and divide his flock. What better question to ask Jesus than a question about the Emperor, a question about politics. In a debate you’re not trying to convince your opponent, you’re trying to convince the crowd, or perhaps you’re trying to sow division amongst the supporters. A question on politics that will divide your supporters - you can’t dodge a question like that. Current affairs require current opinions. Confusion to our world is the only natural response. The alternative would be to just fall in with everyone else’s plans, to be swept up into other’s agendas. Surely, we seek a sensation and impression of the real; and dare we put it into more words than that? But we just feel it gently, and sit with it, watch it in the flame. We watch it in the flowers. We watch it in the light coming in through the windows. We hear it in distant sounds. Don’t say there is no water…
But speech is fraught, and saying even the simplest thing to another is impossible. The most obvious example to me is: I believe in God. Or, I am an agnostic. Or, I am an atheist. These are three assertions which on the surface appear to suggest three entirely different perspectives, three entirely different ways of being and operating in our world. But under layers of language, and suggested meaning, under secret codes which indicate to another if we’re part of each other’s in-group, it really becomes quite difficult to distinguish the meaning between these assertions. What one person means when they talk of atheism, is what another means when they talk of belief. And yet based on such shallow language, we will very quickly dismiss one another. Based on only a few chosen words, we will assess another’s interior belief system, categorise them, and put them in a box they will be hard pressed to ever escape. As a minister I come up against this all the time. What do you do? I’m a Unitarian minister. End of conversation. I can see in their eyes the assumptions being made. They think they have some grasp on what that means, what I must therefore believe, what ideas would make me squeamish.
Jesus was asked about paying tax. And he takes a coin and he looks at it, and he says ‘Whose image is this?’ And the crowd says it is Caesar’s. And he says, then give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. To many people Jesus’ answer here is understood simply as ‘yes’. Yes, you should pay your taxes. But of course, he doesn’t say ‘yes’. He takes a coin. He looks at it, and he says give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. In the first century if something, an object, carried your image or your inscription, it was understood to be an extension of you. If a statue of Caesar stood in the centre of your town, and you damaged that statue, you were not merely damaging a statue, you were attacking Caesar himself. Jesus was much more concerned with the immediate space between you and I, that if here, in the moment, we will manifest care and love. Jesus was much more concerned with our interior space. ‘Store up treasures in heaven not upon the earth; give to Caesar what is Caesar’s’, could easily mean do not deal in Caesar’s things at all; eschew his image, his money, his Empire. Do not deal in the Kingdom of Man, deal in the Kingdom of God. Speech is fraught, and saying even the simplest thing to another is impossible. We are masters of hearing what we want to hear, seeing what we want to see.
In the 21st Century, in the United Kingdom, not paying your taxes is just a non-question. It’s an absurdity. Who would not pay their tax? And as it’s an absurdity, a non-question, the very notion of questioning whether one should pay tax is a question we cannot even hear. It’s a struggle to even entertain the hypothetical. The other day a few of us listened to a talk by Richard Rohr on St Paul, and the simplistic image of Paul as a homophobic, misogynistic, bigot was deconstructed. Paul was presented as a paradoxical thinker who, to take literally in a two-dimensional way, would be to misunderstand him. That out of the fourteen letters written by Paul in the New Testament, only seven are likely to be authentically from Paul, and that the most odious lines we attribute to Paul about proper order in the church, and woman not being allowed to speak, are there for the most part in the dubious letters. At college, I remember a professor saying, we see the Jesus we want to see. The liberal sees a liberal Jesus, the conservative sees a conservative Jesus. And it makes sense that this would be the case with Paul also. Richard Rohr is very good speaker, whose insights make a lot of sense to me, but it’s because they make sense that I’m suspicious. If you could go back in time and meet anyone, who would you meet? This question, I think, is about conversations. Who do you find so interesting that you would go back and hear what they had to say? What person would you go back to speak to? Someone personal, or someone notable? What would you ask them? What question burns within you, that you wish you could just get a simple answer for?
Perhaps there is more in silence. For speech is fraught. Perhaps the real gain in going back to speak to Jesus would be in the not speaking. Perhaps the journey would be made worthwhile by the quality of silence. For perhaps there is nothing more to say. Perhaps silence is best.