One of the ‘in’ songs during my student radio days was Enigma’s “Return to Innocence” (along with “Something Inside so Strong” by Labi Siffre, which seemed to have some deep significance for a lot of my peers that I never quite got the bottom of!). It’s a song that particularly resonated with me at the time, partly because I quite liked it, but mainly because of this idea of returning to innocence.
Innocence is an interesting thing in today’s society. Along with its close cousin naivete, it seems to me that it’s seen as something bad, or at least something to be looked down again; as in “He’s so naive”. It’s also seen as something fragile, which is easily lost and once lost is gone forever, like Platoon’s strapline: “the first casualty of war is innocence.”
I have a different take on this, which in part hangs on the hook of Enigma’s song, and in part relies on the work on the French theologian Paul Ricoeur, about which I’ll say a bit more in a minute.
I have come to see that innocence can be an intentional choice – not because we don’t know any better, but because we do! This is perhaps part of what Jesus was getting at when he told his disciples to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:6, NRSV). In my own journey, I had a bit of a wild time at college, at the stage of my life where I reckoned I could make a better job of it than God. But I had a epiphany moment when I woke up one morning, and cast my mind back to the evening before, and thought (for the 1,000th time) “Oh no – I can’t believe I did/said that last night”. Only on that occasion I made the leap to realising how foolish it is to consistently wake up with regrets. I have to say that God wasn’t quite ready to let go of me either, and was working on me in all sorts of ways – but one of the outcomes was that I started trying to be intentionally innocence. To believe the best of people and situations. To enjoy myself in ways where I could look myself (and my friends) in eye the next day. I should probably make it clear that I wasn’t necessarily doing anything out of the ordinary for students, but never-the-less I was not proud of how I was living my life.
This brings us to Paul Ricoeur. Actually he was more of a philosopher than a theologian, and he is particularly close to my heart because I got my highest grade for my assignment on him!! His hermeneutic approach (that it is to say, how we can understand and apply the Bible today) was that we start with a naive reading of a biblical text as the word/work of God. We then apply rigorous scholarly analysis, treating it with suspicion it deserves as something that it also a work of man. Ricoeur’s particular contribution was that we don’t stop there. Instead we return to the text again as a work of God, and submit ourselves to the “naive” reading, while holding on to, and in times despite of, the insight from the critical analysis. It seems to me that this is captured beautifully in the lyric “return to innocence”.
I strongly suspect that this is the sort of thing that Paul had in mind when he wrote to the church in Philippi. As the preacher at my church on Sunday reminded us, this is the way to peace; and I am inclined to treat “peace” and “innocence” as almost synonymous in this context, perhaps tapping also into the depth and beauty of shalom.
Whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you. (Phil 4:8-9)
This intentional innocence is not the easy option. The first innocence is easy, because you don’t know any better. The loss of innocence isn’t easy to go through at the time, but equally I’ve come to see that being “clever” (or cynical, or worldy-wise, or suspicious, or whatever phrase you might want to use) is actually also the easy option. Worse that this, in some cases it is no less than bullying when it is at someone else’s expense. I also wonder if it’s a form of self-protection, that avoids having to seriously engage with the people and situation. To continue to believe and trust despite having been let down and hurt, indeed to do so knowing that you may or even will be betrayed again – that costs. In fact, it is the sort of innocence that led Jesus to be betrayed by Judas, abandoned by his disciples, and in the end to death on the cross.
But there is a bigger narrative in the Bible as well, which you might describe as from innocence to innocence, or innocence lost and innocence regained (if Milton will forgive this misappropriation!). In the Garden of Eden is pure innocence, which is lost through the ‘apple’, and immediately peace and right relationships are replaced with fear and accusation. Genesis 3 onwards paints the picture of an increasing downward and outward spiral of violence as humanity drifts further from God and his goodness. However, the ultimate end of the picture is a new creation, and renewed innocence, where there will be no more tears, suffering, pain or death. Where the created order will co-exist once more in peace and innocence and which – despite the cynics cheap accusations of boredom – will be absolutely wonderful.
Do I always achieve innocence? Of course not. But I’m going to keep on trying, and perhaps draw a little closer to the Kingdom of God in the process, and hopefully spread some of its joy and peace along the way.