Monthly Archives: March 2006

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Low tide

The Sea of Faith*
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Matthew Arnold, Dover Beach

Ever since I was an undergraduate – and perhaps before – I have found that my faith, or rather my confidence in my faith, ebbs and flows. The tide is some way out at the moment, and I can hear the melancholy, long, withdrawing roar of tumbling shingle. At times like this, if I set my compass by felt conviction, I find myself heading towards a somewhat sceptical agnosticism: feeling meaningful patterns, comforting claims, fraying between my fingers. Or, better, losing any sense of rhythm or tune and instead hearing only noise.

I’m not agonising about this. I’m not particularly worried. It’s partly that, to judge by past experience, these things go in cycles for me. And it’s partly that I don’t set my compass entirely by ‘felt conviction’, and do not think that I ought to. And it’s partly that I quite like it here, on the naked shingle, standing too low down to gain an overview.

* and no, I’m not aligning myself at all with another theologian who famously quoted this poem…

Baptised at the beginning

κηρύσσων βάπτισμα μετανοίας εἰς ἄφεσιν ἁμαρτιῶν

Mark 1:4

Perhaps one reason why Jesus’ baptism by John stands at the beginning here (one reason why it was found fitting for a Gospel to begin like this; one reason why the idea of Jesus’ ministry starting with his baptism took such strong hold) is that baptism was the beginning for Mark’s community as well. Baptism was what had happened when they heard the voice crying in the wilderness: it was their making-straight, their crossing of the Jordan. It was where they repented, confessed their sins – and were drawn into the orbit of Jesus, the coming of YHWH. That this stands here establishes (wittingly or unwittingly) a connection between the readers/hearers and what they are reading/hearing: the baptized reading the story of one baptized – those who have repented, and prepared themselves for the coming of God, reading/hearing of the form taken by the coming of God. One way of summarising the import of this whole text, therefore, could be: This is what you have let yourself in for.