Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Five and Five

No one has tagged me, but some like Jody Stowell are being tagged and tagging others to say who are the five most influential people regarding the spiritual road. I won't sit and wait, but I won't join the chain either and tag others. I'll pick general ones, and how each one leads on to others, and then I have more face to face ones.

John A. T. Robinson is the first, in that it was his Honest to God that showed an accessible way into theology. The book, shown to some Christians for comment, got me into quite a bit of trouble, for being both too old hat and part of my creating too many doubts. It also introduced me to theology as in Paul Tillich, who I went on to reject. Part of that rejection (that it is a one way street of Christian answers dressed up in existential language, and offering no way in) led to the next and enduring influence.

Don Cupitt is by far the most continuous influence. I have several criticisms, such as the repetition and in some cases playing fast and loose, but the general position is one I do share. I am not as complete a non-realist as he is, that I discriminate between language games across different subjects and thus I will say (but so will Cupitt) that religion is like art and that it is impossible to have an objective stance rooted somewhere else. From him I reach approaches to several theologians similar and different. I have met Don on several occasions, but I refer here to his writings: and, incidentally, his writings before he took leave of God and his material on Christ are just as worth reading. If considering the possibility of overall transcendence, some of his material on a high and dry God is worth encountering. From Cupitt comes indicators of the importance of language and poststructuralism.

James Martineau is another influence, though you have to take what he wrote and move on from the later nineteenth century into the present. Broad Church Anglicans in his day knew all about him, but his association with Unitarians is why he becomes more forgotten. He would be the last stage of the objective and subjective. On the objective side he would say that Christianity points to a more general overall and universal revelation (they were looking for a Messiah but we are not) but on the subjective side he placed the centre of religion not in any messianic figure, nor in any book, but in the individual conscience. He crucially saw the difference between the activity of doing religion and therefore whilst theology had its critical role poetic liturgy had a different purpose and tended to conserve language. I think these three positions coming into themelves produce a liberal postmodernism in religion. He was also anti-denominational, something I maintained whilst hearing a Unitarian minister for many years who was broad in his religion but also something of a denominationalist. So I have always been ecumenical in terms of institutions. Martineau had a conservative temperament (including in politics) but others could see that the implication of his view was interfaith, and that is another aspect of my development: with contact in the past with Buddhists and Bahais.

Ernst Troeltsch is another long time ago influence, but one that is more recent. In the end it tells why a Church cannot be a Church, in that the supporting cultural ground has shifted away. A Church open to all has no difficulties when there is a Middle Ages Christian and superstitious culture. A Church being open today is more problematic. Of course sects can carry on. Incidentally, Martineau beat him to it regarding the Church-sect difference, but then Troeltsch added a third category, called Mysticism, of free individuals coming together to produce their religion together - and of course the Church to be open today has to have an element of Mysticism in it. No matter what the institution rules, people freely come together and, in the end, they can say what they like. Troeltsch is also important because he shows the limitations of historical enquiry, and the importance of culture in religion. He does not close the hermeneutic circle like even Paul Tillich does, and clearly a human cultural approach to religion and its impact has implications for any kind of Christology. It never supports uniqueness because culture is something we share, alter and pass on collectively. Once again symbolism and language are important.

Marcel Mauss then is the final, general individual, though there are some more. I did think of Sangharakshita and the presentation of Buddhist essentials and seeing the difference between what is important and what can be culturally agnostic. But then the cultural often is the important. Sangharakshita also can show how something is for the West and yet challenges the West. Yet in the end I'm too selective about him and not does he guide what I do now in terms of practice. This is why I go with Marcel Mauss, the social anthropologist and nephew of Emile Durkheim. Mauss understood gift and exchange in ritual activity, where a material cost is given for what is hoped to be a higher spiritual return via the use of a token, and this return binds the collective together as people do these exchanges together one to another. This has enabled me to develop a eucharistic based economics of ritual, that takes one from the general, overseeing and largely gift based religious activity and ethical challenge to the generality of exchange that we do one with each other. We go from religion to society, or from society to religion, and the gift idea is what the religious participant takes into society. It brings together my understanding of Economics and marginal value, through sociology and social anthropology, to symbolism and language, and to a continuous religious practice. There is a kind of anthropological foundationalism here that keeps my non-realism in check: I am not sure that it always works in terms of gift, and how attitudinal it is, and of course there is cultural variation, but it does at least suggest a kind of universalism, even if religion seems to be a form of added value.

When it comes to known individuals, then applying a test of personal conversations rather than questions and answers and fleeting meetings, then it is a case of whittling down a longer list to just five. And these would be:

Andrew Linzey, for offering a different vision of being Christian when I was completely agnostic, and then joining some dots when I started reading John Robinson. He also was the inspiration for seeking ordination, though this was transferred into the Unitarians and failed to take shape. Contact has been revived recently, but this is with geographical distance.

Francis Simons, now the late, who was an Anglican priest who gave his last eucharist and said goodbye to his congregation and next day began as a Unitarian minister. He thus knew where I was coming from, and also his Buddhist-Humanism was a symbolic approach to Unitarianism that I could relate to most easily. He came to see me at Lincoln as I discussed my transition. He was also giving support and training during the trouble-infected student days. He did not worship the Unitarian denomination at all, and could see its faults just as he could see Anglican faults. I warmed to that ecumenism and liberal commitment.

Roger Pickering (and wife), who was Anglican parish priest at Swine, near Hull. I was a boundary crosser then, away from the overbearing Sutton and Wawne ministry team and all that to something quieter. I was regarded as fairly dangerous and an outsider, but I had many conversations with him. He was a person who could have a better time with technology than some people, and was heavily into audio-visual presentations and use of computers. In the end I had to move on to the Unitarians, but it was due to his (and wife's) warmth that led me never quite to leave even when moving house made the cycle ride all the longer. Once I moved to Derbyshire and Manchester, that was it and they also moved into retirement. I understand he acquired Altzheimer's Disease.

Then I will include the late Ernest Penn, long serving Unitarian minister, despite differences and a more impersonal relationship, although that warmed and, despite his retirement it was important for me that he was the person that he conducted the wedding of me and Elena. In the end, he was the mouthpiece of so much Untarianism, and it was only when going into the Manchester area thickett that I realised it was something rather narrower and traditionalist. He was the person who did allow Hull to be one of the more progressive churches in Yorkshire. I clashed with him on his portrayal of other denominations and his anti-credalism: this was much more complicated than his descriptions. I think he was both under-appreciated and under-rated by too many people: they exploited his loyalty to the denomination. I think at the time I would have referred to people in the congregation as influential, but actually they weren't when I look at the long view. I could map myself both from and against Ernest Penn. Also his skill and his consistent ethic as a minister come through as you take the larger view.

David Rowett (and wife) I must include now, in that at Barton he presents a rounded and critical Anglo-Catholicism and does so as a very warm rounded personality. He (with others) has affected my viewpoint and indeed doing religious practice. In the end there is a difference between us, which is worth maintaining (unless either change) in that he takes the whole package of Anglican understood Catholic tradition which he can handle critically and I am liberal critical from the beginning as to what I will take. But he includes the other, and will present good arguments, and you can debate, and he is far more an intellectual figure than he will admit. I see myself drifting towards his position and coming away from it too, sometimes both at once on differing matters, made possible because of the relationship in the honest discussion that is ever ongoing. My life is something in transition at the moment, and so there is a pastoral relationship too, and that transition means that I don't know where I will be soon, or what his effect over all will be. It is important now. I don't even know my future regarding Anglicanism, as it seems to get ever narrower and where too many are hiding out in corners while others go on and on about "false teachers" and preaching ever more on what some get up to with their genitals. For the time being, I feel I can carry on in this corner.

They are all ordained or ministers. That says something. And male.

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