A Sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on August 22 2021 by Revd Dr Sam Wells

Reading of address: John 6:67

The world is full of half-unbelieving believers and half-believing unbelievers. Today’s gospel contains some of the most poignant words in the Bible. You may know the expression, ‘never ask a question to which you might get an answer you don’t want to hear.’ It seems Jesus doesn’t know or doesn’t heed that advice. Facing the desertion of many of his followers, he turns to the twelve disciples and says, ‘Are you leaving too?’ There are moments in the Bible where you could freeze the frame and ponder how much hangs on the answer to one question. What would have happened if the disciples had said yes? Did some of them want to say yes? Was Jesus courageously naming what everyone else was thinking?

Peter’s answer is unforgettable for what it does say and what it doesn’t say. ‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.’ This isn’t a chest-thumping assertion of perpetual loyalty. It’s almost a lament. There’s more than a hint that Peter’s not enjoying himself all that much. But he’s not pretending there’s joy to be had elsewhere. Jesus has the words of eternal life. Whether life right now is fun or not, walking away would be either denial or distraction. I bet half the people sitting in this church and joining online today are here because they’ve tried the alternatives and found them wanting. To whom else can we go?

The novel Narziss and Goldmund was published by the German-Swiss author Herman Hesse in 1930. The novel is set amid the plague and political turbulence of fourteenth-century central Europe. Its style is on the borderline between historical romance and timeless fable. It concerns two young men of the same age whose lives follow different paths. Narziss is a teacher at a cloister school who’s set on becoming a monk. He’s an intellectual, who enjoys theology and philosophy, and is content to let his brain meander across vast tracts of knowledge and learning without his leaving the sanctuary of the monastery.

Goldmund, by contrast, once he’s completed his education, heads off as a vagrant on a rumbustious parade through town and country, seducing the womenfolk and seeking joy in freedom from commitment. Eventually he’s drawn to an exquisite carved Madonna he sees in a church. This awakens his longing for his own birth mother, and unlocks his latent talent as a master carver. But after three years’ apprenticeship he refuses to join a guild and settle down as a craftsman, and sets out again to roam. He encounters the devastations of the Black Death at close quarters. Facing execution after a tryst with the wife of the ruler of a great city, he’s saved by Narziss, now the abbot of the monastery where the two friends first met.

Narziss takes Goldmund back to the cloister, setting him up with a workshop where he begins again to produce magnificent wood carvings. It seems Goldmund has found the perfect balance of creativity and stability. This is what Hesse says about Goldmund’s artistic motivation: ‘He thought the fear of death was perhaps the root of all art … When artists create pictures and thinkers search for laws and formulate thoughts, it’s in order to salvage something from the great dance of death, to make something that lasts longer than we do.’ Goldmund’s sojourn in the monastery doesn’t stick, and he sets off once more on his restless journey: but this time, his romantic appeal has left him, and he no longer has the charm to get his way in life. He’s a broken man. He returns to the monastery, where Narziss nurses him till he dies.

The story looks like a straightforward contrast between the thinker and the artist. But there’s more to it than that. The work of three authors underlies the surface story. First, Sigmund Freud’s reflections on the role of the mother and the longing to be reunited with her permeate the narrative. Goldmund’s mother was a gypsy, his first romance is with a gypsy, he adopts an archetypally gypsy roaming lifestyle, and he’s still talking about his mother on his deathbed. Second, Carl Jung’s union of polar opposites contrasts Goldmund’s identification with nature with Narziss’ engagement with science, logic and the transcendent. Third, the German rendering of Narziss’ name is Narcissus. This arises from Friedrich Nietzsche’s theory of the Apollonian versus Dionysian spirit. Nietzsche credits the success of Greek tragedy to its ability to harmonise the qualities of the two sons of Zeus. Apollo was a character of rational thinking and order, who embodied logic, prudence and purity. Dionysius was immersed in wine and dance, emotion and instinct, irrationality and chaos. In a Greek tragedy, the hero struggles and fails to make Apollonian sense out of his chaotic Dionysian circumstances. In the book, Narziss is clearly a type of Apollo and Goldmund a type of Dionysius. The novel is a synthesis of the two dimensions of the search for truth.

But that’s not the only way to read the novel. I believe we can also read it as an engagement with the courageous vulnerability of Jesus’ question and the honest yet tragic reply of Peter. I want to explore with you the way this novel discloses several levels of searching for the truth about life and God.

Let’s start with the proposal that we should just get on with life and leave all the speculation about eternity and truth and meaning to another day. You could say this is the majority view in a culture like ours. Our society’s attention focuses on fulfilling desires, finding security, enjoying entertainment, and celebrating achievement. It’s as if any more far-reaching significance or any speculation about why we’re here and what life is truly about comes as a surprise and an intrusion. This view would reflect mostly Goldmund’s immersion in the world with a little of Narziss’ sobriety. But the novel discredits this approach. Goldmund’s burlesque meander through medieval life consistently brings him face to face with issues of death and the hereafter, meaning and truth, whether in his encounters with the Black Death or in his facing his own execution. The whole novel assumes that existence is about the search for a good way to live. You can’t postpone these questions forever. We all need a community of those who ponder them deeply together.

So let’s move on to the apparent absurdity of landing on a fable from 2000 years ago, about a prophet who was executed and rose again, as the central story of humankind. I imagine every one of us, at some stage, has seriously contemplated how far away the gospels seem and how strange it is for the narrative of one man can become the touchstone of all truth. The paradox of Narziss and Goldmund is that we see Jesus in both of them. The gospels portray Jesus in many ways like Goldmund. He wanders around the towns and villages, having a series of illuminating encounters, yet with no place to lay his head. Yet many assume following Jesus looks more like Narziss – wise, gentle, kind, compassionate, stable. Far from being locked in his historical context, Jesus defies categorisation. In the famous words of Albrecht Schweizer, ‘He comes to us as one unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside, he came to those who knew him not. He speaks to us the same words: “Follow me!” and sets us to the tasks which he has to fulfil for our time. He commands. And to those who obey him, whether they be wise or simple, he will reveal himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in his fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience who he is.’ Jesus speaks as clearly today as twenty centuries ago.

Then to a more subtle and sinister claim about Christianity: that it’s been explained away as a psychological construct by the great social thinkers of the last two centuries. This is why I wanted to share with you the ways Narziss and Goldmund echoes and amplifies the theories of Freud, Jung and Nietzsche. What the novel does is to show how far-reaching each of those attempts to describe the human condition are – but at the same time to expose how inadequate they are when taken as a comprehensive account. The problem with the novel is that it’s overly reliant on a binary notion of how we navigate reality. It’s not as simple as cerebral Narziss versus roll-in-the-hay Goldmund. To be fair on Hesse, the novel shows us a lot more nuance in the characters of the two protagonists than my brief outline might suggest. Nonetheless the story of Jesus gives us the simplicity of a binary structure: Jesus is the incarnate one whose utterly human form bears the full disclosure of God, while the Holy Spirit is the eternal life-force that works outside, beyond and through living and inanimate things, bringing everything to fulfilment. But the point is these aren’t two rival forms of existence, or primal forces competing with each other: they’re complementary forces immersing in creation and drawing that creation into God’s glory. It’s not Freud, Jung and Nietzsche that deconstruct Christianity: it’s the other way round.

And the last criticism of Christianity on which this novel has a bearing is the familiar lament that says, ‘I like Jesus, I just can’t stand the church.’ There’s a lot of truth in this complaint. The church has done terrible things, both while claiming Jesus’ name and under the cloak of authority derived from Jesus’ example. There’s one problem though: we only have the Jesus the early church has bequeathed us. Our entire understanding of Jesus is derived from accounts written by early leaders of the church. Any thorough attempt to disentangle Jesus from the church will fail. And this is a point borne out by this novel. There are profound ideas in the book, but it’s ultimately not a story about ideas. It’s a story about what it means to live out ideas. There’s no neutral laboratory in which to evaluate the claims of Christianity: it all depends on context, and Herman Hesse explores faith entirely as it’s lived out in relation to a man who pines for his mother, a land beset by plague, a political situation riven with factional rivalries, a traveller ruled by his desires: in other words, a very human set of realities. None of us gets to judge Christianity in the abstract: we all have to live it amid the demanding and mundane dramas of our lives.

To whom else can we go? In the end, perhaps the most important thing is not the question, but the tone of voice in which it’s asked. Peter asks the question in sorrow and yet in determination. Both Narziss and Goldmund address the question with growing understanding, one rooted in self-reflection, the other in clumsy experience. Anyone who asks the question in confrontational assertiveness is looking for trouble. But if we say those six words, ‘To whom else can we go?’ gently, humbly, and honestly, we will find in Jesus the bread of life that will feed us forever.