It was 37 Centigrade; Death-Valley hot.
A sign up the road pointed towards some caves.
I turned off onto a dusty track and looked for some shade.
As I parked the car a large man began to make huge expansive gestures by which to help me park. The gestures were half-funny, half-crazy. Once the car was ‘just so’ (as the gestures declared) the large man turned away and set off for a nearby copse of trees. He was wearing long khaki shorts – as well as sandals and socks. The socks were monk-robe brown. I thought that he must be English – the kind of man who collects butterflies or rocks – geological specimens – quartz and amethyst crystals. Maybe he was a botanist. He had a dog with him; it was a poodle – a small black poodle.
‘Come on, Hanky,’ he said.
The poodle was called Hanky.
I started to get things organised for lunch. Even though 37 degrees takes the hunger away, some bread and wine in the shade seemed like a good idea. I’d bitten off one mouthful of bread when the large man and Hanky re-appeared. The man started to speak to me. He wanted to fill out his earlier gestures with words.
He started with: ‘Hello! Where are you from ?’
‘I’m from the south of England,’ I replied.
‘Oh – where they love the Royals,’ he joked.
I dismissed the Royals with a slow sweeping move of my hand.
He thought that the Royals were ‘ridiculous’.
‘Yes,’ I replied, ‘Absurd.’
‘Are you a geologist ? I asked.
‘No. I studied theology.’
‘So, you’re a thologian ?’
‘Of a sort.’
He told me where he had studied and how he had once had a small parish of his own – but a re-organisation of the church had declared his parish too small and had merged it with a larger one so now he had no parish. He was a kind of itinerant – who helped to give serrmons whenever a need arose. I reckoned that his sermons must have been really good. He knew all about the great French sociologists and he was vaguely Hegelian: he was more interested in accessing the original spirit of the church rather than any of its doctrines.* He’d been a student of theology in the early 70s:
‘In the 70s there was still lots of hope around; I was taught that all religions had the same root – and that it was all about connecting with the one God of all things. But that’s all gone. That’s all over.’ And then he said:
‘Now we’re beyond ethics.’ Have you read ‘Beyond ethics’ ?’
‘No,’ I said.
For most of the time that he spoke, he laughed or smiled and his eyes twinkled Las Vegas bright.
I started to reflect on the things that he had said but he was quick to interrupt me:
‘You’re too serious,’ he said. ‘I float, I glide on the surface of the world.’ And as he spoke he made as if he were a great bird curving through space.
And then it all became clear: The theologian was a man who was perfectly happy to play the clown. And, he didn’t need to go down into the caves because he already knew how to sit atop the mountain. BUT beneath the mask of the clown he understood, he felt, the tragedy of human history. So now, clowning, he glided amongst the fruits of the earth – immersed in the beautiful lightness of being.
*Footnote: The theologian thought that Hegel’s criticism concerning the ‘positivity’ of the church – the condition where the original spirit has been driven out by the elaborate and repressive conduct of religion – was ‘spot on.’