Scripture for this Sunday (Reign of Christ, or Christ the King):
Jeremiah 23.1-6; Psalm 46; Colossians 1.11-20; Luke 23.33-43
I thought that it was rather interesting that during a week when an English coal miner’s daughter emerged as perhaps a pivotal point in the downfall of an American president, a notable anniversary occurred: the 200th birthday of one Mary Ann Evans, better known to the literary world as George Eliot.
Who wrote under that pseudonym, of course, because she was a woman.
200 years after Mary Ann’s birth and 150 years after the emergence of her novels, this week Dr Fiona Hill needed no pseudonym to give reputable evidence before the American House of Representatives. As the cigarette ad of the 1960s used to say: “You’ve come a long way, baby!” I don’t believe that it is too far fetched to suggest that the talent underlying the novels of George Eliot may have moved female emancipation forward by several steps. But it is interesting to consider how this played out against her own religious background.
Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot) grew up in a traditional Anglican family at a time when the church was experiencing much turmoil. She briefly dabbled with evangelical Christianity before giving up church altogether – but not, as may be seen in her writing, her engagement with the experience of the divine, her spirituality and her expression of a faith struggling to emerge against the background of the challenge to reconcile science and religion.
Two works amongst many stand out in this turmoil. Charles Lyell’s Elements of Geology had established in the 1830s that the earth was much older than the 6000 years suggested by a literal reading of Genesis. And Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species, published exactly 160 years ago, brought the debate to a head. But why? Mainly because large parts of the Church in general had painted themselves into a corner by choosing to pit themselves against the revelations of science since the beginning of the ‘Age of Enlightenment.’
Which begs the question: why would an omnipotent, creative God not create a universe of which evolution could be a part? If God enjoys the relationship with humankind, why would that relationship not develop and mature? More fundamentally, why would scripture written by and for people with an understanding of metaphor and parable suddenly need to be taken absolutely literally? Such issues drove Mary Ann Evans and others like her from the church.
What is interesting about the novels of George Eliot is that as she wrote, she revealed a kind of soft affection for the Anglican faith of her youth, even if her own personal struggle with faith kept her from returning to being a practising Anglican. In Daniel Deronda she wrote of circumstances in which, “The submission of the soul to the Highest is tested …”
In these, and other words, it is possible to witness a spiritual struggle taking place within someone who evidently possessed an awareness of the divine, but had a lot of difficulty framing that within the context of religious faith, especially against the backdrop of social and scientific change in the 19th century. Mary Ann Evans may have stopped going to church, but she didn’t stop seeking, she didn’t stop thinking and she didn’t stop expressing, through her characters, the challenges of religion and faith. In fact, she has been described as one of the most Christian of the 19th century authors, in the way that the church emerges as a background to the drama of her novels.
This Sunday is a good opportunity to reflect upon these things, because as we celebrate the ‘Reign of Christ’ we can consider what it is that we believe about our relationship with our creator, and how the presence of Christ in the world affects that relationship.
What is rather sad about this is that in proclaiming allegiance to Christ, we are all too often terribly preoccupied with looking around us at what our fellow Christians proclaim, or do, and trying to find fault with it, as if in some way that makes us more important. Jesus might not have condemned ambition in his disciples, but he certainly didn’t encourage passing judgement on one another, nor playing games of relative prestige or prominence – quite the opposite (e.g. “the last shall be first;” washing his disciples’ feet).
As we ponder on the divisiveness in our world – and even between and in our church communities – perhaps we could rearrange the word into divineness (yes, I know it’s not an anagram!). So although we are prone to the human trait of divisiveness, perhaps we need to be united by the shared human capacity for divineness.
The reign of Christ exists not in some arbitrary future existence, not in some separate universe, not in some abstract consciousness – but in the gathered-in remnants (to quote Jeremiah) of the faithful members of Christ’s body – in other words, it begins with us. As we look forward to Advent arriving next Sunday, with one of its themes being gathered into the body of the Christ who comes to be born and comes to be reborn, we might profitably spend the coming week thinking about being gathered in, reflecting upon the words of Jeremiah about God’s commitment to gather in the remnant … asking ourselves where we have overlooked what we share in common (the love and grace of God) because we pay too much attention to differences.
And given that humanity has had about 177 years more than Mary Ann Evans to get used to the revelations of science and technology, we might seek answers by coming to church, and open-mindedly asking questions, rather than, as she did, stop going to church! One thing is sure: we certainly need not to drive away the Mary Ann Evans of our own time.
For more on George Eliot and her journey of faith, see excellent articles by Michael Sadgrove at https://northernambo.blogspot.com/2019/11/ and http://northernwoolgatherer.blogspot.com/2019/11/in-praise-of-george-eliot-on-her-200th.html