There is within Christian belief an assumption, rarely brought to the surface, that believes that God does not and cannot change. This assumed changelessness of God allows Christians to expect that their world of belief also never needs to change. This understanding is expressed in the well-known hymn that God is one who ‘changes not’. He is compared with the ‘change and decay’ that is ‘in all around I see’. The hymn articulates an attitude towards God, both felt and believed in, together with a desire to reach out for and grasp on to realities which will never alter. This is felt to be particularly important for those who find the world unsettling because of the way that it is constantly changing and disturbing the people who want certainty and stability in their lives.
A longing for stability in the face of change is not peculiar to our age and culture. One of the distinctive beliefs of the Greeks of the early Christian period was the notion that God was a being above time and space. He was incapable of change. The understanding of perfection could not allow any idea of alteration in God. There was an instinctive understanding that change of any kind was a change away from perfection, a change for the worse. We might not want to argue with this understanding of the nature of the divine, but the effect on the spirituality that flowed from it was not always so helpful. In brief the mystical way was understood to be a journey from ‘change and decay’ to contemplate the eternal beauty and stability of God. Once again we can see that such a notion of prayer, which raises an individual to a place of transcendence, will have its supporters. There is however a problem when this is presented as the ideal for every Christian. Any quick reference back to the New Testament shows us that while prayer, worship and silence were important to Jesus, there was also the life of action and engagement to be undertaken. Surely for the vast majority of Christians a life of involvement with the world and a life of contemplation have to be kept in balance?
The longing to be in a safe place that never changes is not just an echo of classic spirituality. It is also recognisable as a longing with Freudian overtones. It has not gone unnoticed that the hymn ‘Rock of Ages’ seems to demand a return to the safe place similar to the one which was occupied by a child in the womb. ‘Let me hide myself in thee’ seems to pander to some fairly primal longings for safety. Whatever the truth or otherwise of this observation, we still seem to be in the arena of a Christianity which is being sold as a package that offers a diet of security to its followers. It is clear that the safety and security that many want is not in accord with the teaching of Jesus. His challenge to human kind is double-edged. While he invites us to come to him where he will give us ‘rest’, he is also the one who challenges us to take up our cross to follow him. The Christian life is thus a balance between contemplation and action and every reliable expression of the tradition over the centuries seems to recognise this.
The next thing we need to notice about ‘change’ is that it is a sign of life. Our understanding of biology and evolution allows us to see that change is the way that creation moves forward. Unless we are among the minority of Christians who reject evolution, it is clear to all of us that adaptation and change is what makes creation possible. There is a constant process in the way that life reaches out to embrace new complexity in the way that it is expressed. Human beings stand on the shoulders of 14 billion years of constant change and evolution. The detail of this evolution is of course beyond us here but change is an essential and inbuilt part of the process. We can summarise this process as saying that without change there is no life.
It would be then a truism to say that to embrace life is to embrace change. This is true as much for the following of the Christian path as it is true for life in general. An observation of the children in our families is where we see the process of embracing change and newness most clearly at work. They are allowed to make new discoveries every day, learn to use new words and we rejoice in this process. The Christian path cannot be immune to this same process of change. Obviously there is going to be the possibility of such a thing as negative change, change for the worse. But the danger of this should not blind us to the likelihood that we will be expected to be constantly learning, constantly growing and changing in our Christian pilgrimage. Above all we must not allow ourselves to be caught up in a church life which feeds off the fear of change. We should never give in to the doom mediators, the ones who sell ‘safe’ Christianity. That version will present a safe unchanging God, one whose will has been revealed for all time in a book. While it is true to say that the book, the Bible, is always going to be read in Christian circles and be appealed to as a guiding norm for the practice of the faith, it is not true to say that its meaning is unchanging. The bible is read and understood differently in each place it is taught. It will also reveal different messages at different moments in history. And it is not only the understanding of the bible that changes. The ‘book of life’ around us is constantly changing. Constant new insights are being discovered by the society around us. While some need to be challenged, others can welcomed as showing the creative change that a society in a state of evolution will throw up. Sometimes a society which reads the book of life correctly is able to develop love and compassion for persecuted minorities in a way that puts strict Christians to shame. Society, at least in part, has welcomed the end of racism and the cruelty meted out to gays and women ahead of many in the church. Sometimes we find ourselves holding hands with non-Christians who uphold the cause of justice and truth against the bigotry that is shown by some members of our own community. The blockage, at one level, is a fear of change. Christians of a conservative temperament have been persuaded by their leaders that changelessness is a feature of God and the teachings promoted by their group can also never change. That, as we have seen, can lead to cruelty and abusive behaviour.
Change, in short, is not a feature of a decaying church. It can be a feature of life and growth in the same way that the apparently dead twig on a tree gives way to an abundance of growth and beauty. While, of course, there are dangers implicit in the process of welcoming change, we still have to recognise that we need to embrace it in some form or other at every stage of our life. When we recognise the advent of some change as being correct, we need to be able to welcome it with enthusiasm and hope. Change is built into the fabric of the universe and we need to expect it especially in the events that we interpret as the action of God towards us.
STOP PRESS A video of my talk in Stockholm has been published on youtube. This is the reference https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RpwyGHtFmXs