“The Invincibility of Goodness” Easter sermon, March 27, 2016
The old Jewish story tells of the old man who, every evening at sunset, walked through the village crying “Repent, repent, turn from self-seeking and serve God, for the day of judgment is at hand.” Nobody paid him any attention. They all thought he was a crank. But a villager who still had some sympathy for him, one day said to the old man “My friend, why do you waste your time like this? Can’t you see that nobody is paying any attention. What you are doing is not changing anybody.” The old man replied, “You don’t understand, do you. I’m not doing it to change them. I’m doing it to change me.”
Over the years, from time to time I have taken part in various vigils. I don’t like shouting slogans over and over – it must be the English in me – but I have often stood in silent vigils, holding a banner, staring into the middle distance. Like the old man in the story, I am unsure what effect, if any, it has on anyone else, but it never fails to have a profound effect on me. If you have never done it, try it. I commend it to you. I commend to you the practice of standing up and bearing public witness to something you believe in. Having passersby look at you either with amusement or bemusement or, occasionally, with angry contempt.
For some reason I remember one particular vigil, many years ago when I was minister to the Unitarian congregation in Hampstead, north London. This was in the late 1980s, a time when the threat of nuclear annihilation was very real, and I was a tolerably active member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. The United Kingdom plays host to numerous US Air Force bases, some of which, then as now, carry nuclear arsenals. So, on a regular basis, along with other dead-beat, Commie-loving, long-haired anarchist hippie peaceniks – who else would be against the possession and threatened use of weapons which would destroy the planet in order to “defend” a narrow national vanity – I would troop off to one of those bases, Molesworth, in Cambridgeshire. And there we would stand for several hours outside the razor wire perimeter with our banners and signs. It always seemed to rain on the days we went. On this day that stays in my mind, I was standing very close to the razor wire and the guard patrolling on the other side came right up to me and stared directly at me, contempt dripping from his face. I stared dumbly back. Finally, he muttered a few carefully chosen words which delicacy prevents me from repeating here in front of the ladies, spat at me, and continued on his way, evidently pleased with himself that he had shown me what for.
I have seldom felt so utterly the futility of what I was doing. I wasn’t changing the world. I wasn’t saving it from the insanity of nuclear annihilation. I wasn’t a fearless warrior for peace. I was just a deluded middle-class parson standing in the rain making a fool of himself.
Perhaps I remember that vigil and my feeling so chastened because, as serendipity would have it, the very next day I stumbled across an essay by the late and very great English novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch. Perhaps you recall seeing the movie starring Dame Judi Dench and Kate Winslet, called simply Iris, about her remarkable life and then sad and sudden decline into dementia and death. The essay was called The Invincibility of Goodness. It’s almost thirty years now since I first read it, but I have often returned to it. Especially at this Easter season.
To paraphrase Murdoch very loosely, her essential argument is that goodness is “pointless.” She uses the word “pointless” with a subtle but profound double meaning. The world, she says, is pointless. It is without design or purpose. Therefore life in this world is pointless, as pointless as it is precarious. We, in our individual littleness, are not part of a grand scheme; we are not actors, witting or otherwise, in a grand cosmic drama which is drawing to its inevitable if unknowable conclusion. Life is an accident, she says. It simply is. And we discover ourselves to be participants in that life – feeble, frail, and frequently frightened. This life is not the ante-chamber to glory. This life is pointless because it does not lead to anything else. And whatever we do in this life, of good or ill, is therefore pointless.
But, lest you think that this pointlessness leads Murdoch to an existential nihilistic despair or a self-absorbed escapist hedonism, in fact she draws exactly the opposite conclusion. Do good, she says, not because it necessarily will lead to the saving of the world or the creation of the kingdom of heaven on earth or because of any other worthwhile end result. Do good simply for its own sake. Do good simply because it is important to do so. Its very pointlessness is what makes it worthwhile. It is what grants it its virtue. The only thing which is constantly and eternally true about the universe, argues Murdoch, is its pointlessness. Therefore, to be part of what is eternal, participate in its pointlessness. The pointlessness of being and doing good.
She draws the analogy of art. She writes:
“The arts, especially literature and painting, show us the peculiar sense in which the concept of virtue is tied on to the human condition. They show us the absolute pointlessness of virtue while exhibiting its extreme importance; the enjoyment of art is a training in the love of virtue. The pointlessness of art is not the pointlessness of a game; it is the pointlessness of human life itself, and form in art is properly the simulation of the self-contained aimlessness of the universe. Good art reveals what we are usually too selfish and too timid to recognize, the minute and absolutely random detail of the world, and reveals it together with a sense of unity and form…. Art transcends selfish and obsessive limitations of personality… It is a kind of goodness by proxy. Most of all, it exhibits to us the connection in human beings, of clear realistic vision with compassion. The realism of a great artist is essentially both pity and justice.”
For me, the goodness, nay the greatness, of Jesus as he faced the desolation of his own impending death was not that he did so as the fully cognizant incarnate Son of God, about to face a rather uncomfortable and unpleasant few hours but fully assured that he would soon return to glory. His greatness is that he did so in the likely knowledge that all that he had done, all that he had taught and wanted so dearly for his people, all of his struggle and sacrifice, all of it was about to be brought to naught. All of his virtue and his goodness had been pointless. And yet, in spite of that pointlessness, perhaps even because of it, he remained faithful and good. The invincibility of goodness lies in its pointlessness.
There are many messages in this Easter season. Of all religious festivals, Easter is the richest seam to mine, without recourse to any of the more improbable orthodox Christian doctrines. The message I choose to offer you this morning is that Jesus remained faithful to goodness even unto death, and his doing so was pointless, and it is within that very pointlessness that is discovered its universality and its invincibility. And two thousand years later, his pointlessness has lost none of its power. It is that pointlessness which offers us the daring challenge: might we too be good, might we too do good, might we too offer ourselves steadfast even in the absence of guarantee?
Whether in the market square calling for others to repent, whether standing at the razor wire confronting the indifference of overwhelming military might, whether whatever it is in the struggle of the moment, our own life is pointless, the universe is pointless, and therein lies the wonder. Therein lies the possibility. Therein lies the call. Do you hear the call? Will you answer?