21st January 2019
Some of you might be familiar with the painting entitled the Light of the World, by the pre-Raphaelite artist, Holman Hunt. The allegorical painting depicts Jesus, carrying a lantern, and knocking at a door – a door that has been unopened for so long it has become overgrown with weeds and ivy. A door with no handle on the outside, that can only be opened by the person inside.
The original copy of this painting hangs in the Chapel of Keble College, in Oxford where I once attended a profoundly uninspiring lecture on the meaning of the painting. Far more insightful, I think, is a version of the painting with some captions attached, a copy of which has been printed off my computer and is occasionally placed on public display on the door to Flat 1, Herschel Court. The captions are a brief exchange between Jesus at the door, and the person inside the house. The conversation goes like this: Let me in! / Why? / I want to save you! / From what? / From what I’m going to do to you if you don’t let me in! In other words, a picture of salvation that became dominant but that has little to do with the biblical portrayal of Jesus.
Like popstars having to explain their lyrics, towards the end of his life, Hunt himself felt it necessary to explain the imagery in the painting: that the door signifies the ‘obstinately shut mind’ – the obstinately shut mind. On an entirely unrelated topic, our Prime minister this week, stood in Downing Street, announced that her door is open, quickly retreated to Number 10, and closed the door. And so headline-writers in the press have had a field day, playing with the symbolism of the door.
Doors, after all, are profoundly symbolic entities, and this term we will be exploring much of the symbolism they represent. We have had doors in Europe, for at least five thousand years. And almost universally in Indo-European language and thought, the door represents ‘the world outside’ from the perspective of those inside. Long before any notion that doors kept people in, confined, contained, imprisoned etc, their principle function was to keep the world outside, well and truly outside.
Well – apologies for stating the brutally obvious, but as with most of the items on which we rely on a daily basis, it is only when they cease functioning that the role they play in our lives becomes obvious.
The world inside is safe, supportive, nurturing – the world outside is competitive, hostile, dangerous. To live then, in a dwelling with a door – affords those within the house a sense of security and familiarity. But the authority of the domus, the lord of the household, ends at the door. Once you set foot outside your door, you fall into your natural place in the midst of whatever hierarchies dominate the world at large. But – if you’re the person that controls your door – you have your place of refuge, your place to return, the safe space – over which you, to some extent, are master.
Once you have ventured out beyond your dwelling, without that door to secure your dwelling, the dwelling would be publicly accessible, a different place, no longer a home, a refuge or a support. That door is what keeps the world at bay, even while you’re not there – and while you negotiate your way through that world, you do so in the knowledge that you have that place to which you can return.
All that to say, of course, that the door represents the portal between that sphere of life over which you have relative control, and the sphere of life where you are explicitly subjected to the power games of the world at large.
It is easy, of course, to point to the crudest illiberal attempts to keep that frightening world out there at bay. As the great philosopher in possession of ‘all the best words’ once said, ‘We need to build a wall!’ The ‘obstinately shut mind’, is a vice readily identified amongst people we don’t like, or with whom we disagree. Those horrible people out there, are the ones with closed minds, but ‘my door is open’.
The softest target for accusations about closed minds, is of course religion, and Christianity in particular – despite the noise Christians make about opening the door to Jesus. But it’s equally true in politics, where in this country this week, the language of keeping an open door seems to have been used by all major parties, in the hope that all the other major parties will come around to my point of view. And of course, it’s no less true in student politics, where multiple strands of identity politics all-too-often display a staggeringly unselfconscious degree of judgmentalism, intransigence, and refusal to listen – all whilst jealously guarding the language of inclusivity. At every level of society then, the world is full of pseudo-liberal self-congratulatory claims about openness. And all the while the door remains closed.
Interestingly, though, Jesus doesn’t use this language. The Gospel reading this evening reports Jesus at a key stage of his campaign. He has just finished gathering supporters in the region of Galilee – and now sets his sights on Jerusalem, 80 miles South. Now that he and his followers are about to quit their homeland and head to the Holy City, Jesus has warned them all that it’s going to get ugly, and will not end well. And still people commit to following him. So he says look, even in nature animals have their safe spaces: foxes have holes and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head. Any who follow him South are destined to share that same level of insecurity.
In other words, Jesus does not appear to be telling his followers to ‘open the door’. Nor does he encourage them to stay holy and ‘close the door’. Instead, he invites them to a life where there is no door. There is no refuge from the insecurity of the world at large. There is no dwelling over which you are the master. There is no ideological safe space where you can congratulate yourself in the knowledge that you are right, and the rest of the world are wrong. (The disciples constantly learn this the hard way). The only way to find true security, said one interpreter, is to abandon all security.
It reminds me of the reputation of the great warrior tribe, the Spartans in the ancient Hellenistic world. Their cities did not have walls, because the inhabitants were all warriors. Spartans are the walls. The followers of Jesus might well have made similar claims. There are no doors, because their lives are supposed to be the door, the threshold between two worlds, the portal between the familiar world, and whatever is beyond.
Of course, that has rarely proven true in Christian history. Perhaps the greatest irony, is that Holman Hunt’s painting was meant for the Chapel at Keble, but before long it was closed off from the public, open to be viewed only by those who paid to see it. Restricted access to artwork concerned to promote openness.
At the heart of Christianity, is the formation of a community whose very way of life is a doorway, a living portal between unquestioned assumption and alternativity, between what we think we know and what we don’t to know, between comfortable familiarity and disturbing otherness.