When I was a child there was a book which sat on my father’s shelf with the intriguing title, Surprised by Joy. The book was in fact by C.S. Lewis and it appeared in the mid-50s. I never actually read the book but its title is one that can lead us to reflect. This blog post is dedicated to some thoughts that are stimulated by the word ‘surprise’.
The word, surprise, implies that something happens that is unexpected. We are surprised when a pheasant rises up suddenly in front of us when we are on a woodland walk. We have a surprise when we meet an old friend on a street in a city where neither of us live. Christmas gives to all of us, but especially to children, a number of surprises as we open presents. The important thing about surprise is that it is an event over which we have absolutely no control. Many surprises are in fact pleasant but equally there are less welcome surprise events. A diagnosis of illness is a surprise when we had been feeling well. Surprise may turn to shock as we encounter such unexpected and unwelcome bad news. The fact that surprise can be unwelcome as well as pleasant means that some people want to ward off all surprises as far as possible. They long for the opposite to surprise, which is control.
Control is a word that frequently has appeared whenever we have been talking about a Christianity that abuses. The control in this context may be one of two kinds. First there is control of people, in particular making sure that they do not have access to people or ideas that may contaminate the ‘purity’ of the dominant ideology of the group. The second kind of control is one of keeping the discourse that is tolerated, under strict limits. A conservative church for example would not tolerate a free discussion about the historicity of the early stories of Genesis. The discussion, as we would say, is closed. The group has made an irrevocable decision about its parameters of belief and they do not include any discussion on certain topics of theology and belief. I used to know an earnest Baptist lady who was very confused by the idea of discussion groups that were held in our church. ‘What is the point of discussion groups?’ she would say. ‘There is nothing to discuss, it is all in the Bible’.
The mental world occupied by this lady (who had studied for a year in a Bible college in America) was one completely devoid of surprise. There was nothing unexpected to be found in the Bible and she never expected to find anything new. One can point to the fact that a world or a Bible without surprise is a very dull and sterile thing. How long will it be before Christianity itself becomes dull and sterile? One of my issues with conservative bible preaching is that it is often repetitive, wordy and dull. How can it really be anything else if the openings towards newness have been effectively sealed off? Behind this retreat into dullness is a fear, a fear of loss of control, a fear that someone or something will challenge the brittle edges of conservative conformity.
This word surprise contains within it many of the values to which this blog is dedicated. It has the idea of newness, unexpectedness, freedom from control and unpredictability. A conservative thinker might think that surprise would always involve a descent into anarchy. The pilgrim thinker would welcome surprise, precisely because in that surprise are new ways of thinking and speaking. Perhaps here we return briefly to the previous blog post, the one about mystery. Both words give us a glimpse of freedom, excitement and above all a sense that the journey into truth is never ending. I wrote in one of my early blog posts about the words of the early Greek father, Gregory of Nyssa. He spoke of the Christian journey towards God as one of moving ‘from glory to glory’. Here we also have some inkling of the journey that awaits us on the other side of the grave. That journey, the never-ending journey into the heart of God, will be marked, we believe, not only by joy but also by an overwhelming sense of surprise.