Sunday, 26 April 2009

PS All Liberals are Not Quite So Liberal

Giles Fraser has become one of the most identifiable 'liberals' of the Church of England, through media exposure used for his choice of subjects and, of course, the content. He frequently irritates those of evangelical persuasion by his choice and content of subjects.

Nothing raises the hackles of evangelicals more than the cross on which Jesus died and, they say, carried out the saving task of atonement. If it is the penal wrath of God, then it's the love of God for us that causes him to give his Son, or himself (presumably), a nasty beating up and painful death. Such a job done on the second Adam should be enough to reverse the sin of the first Adam and hardly leaves a purpose for the resurrection, according to the argument as given by Giles Fraser in the Church Times.

I always thought, as a child, that nicking apples was naughty, though I didn't think it needed as a decent punishment a whole saviour figure to appear to be beaten up Mel Gibson style and then hung to die. On the other hand, until comparatively recently, nicking some bread in Britain could get you transported to New Holland (that's the place now called Australia, not where I live). So trivial things can lead to hefty punishments.

I'm mocking, though when you hear creationist Christians talk about Adam, as if a reporter was the third person present, you do begin to wonder if the test (not a temptation) of the apples bearing tree was really somewhere below GCSE level. (When I think of first humans, I think of emergent people in the African Rift Valley, doing better on two legs than some others, and getting on with sex, death and magic, but there you go.)

Giles Fraser has a crack at penal substitution and wants a salvation job left for the resurrection. He thinks his views are moderate compared with the Eastern Orthodox (who don't exactly detect original sin, and are similar to the Jews who do not detect this doctrine either, especially as Western Christians got it from Augustine).

Evangelicals, who do believe in sin quite a lot, original and plenty added, will say that Giles Fraser misrepresents them, in that the resurrection is the beginning of the entry into the Kingdom of everyone thus saved. Something like that anyway.

I put it like this because it is a puzzle to me.

I cannot understand why this all has to rely on the cruelty of the Romans. Now very recently the metropolitan police got a bit beyond themselves with protesters not so close to the G20 meeting, but even they don't go in for summary executions along the roadsides or in spaces controlled by the executioners (one chap who was mishandled died unexpectedly). It seems to me it is neither here nor there that Jesus was killed, but rather that someone does sacrificial service for the other, and does it with dedication and commitment. He had beliefs about demons and the end time, and was rather sacrificial and serving in healing and teaching and following those beliefs to the rather bitter end.

It follows that sacrificial service is something that has to be repeated. Nothing is done once and only once. I have no idea what mechanism was brought into play by which the death of one person once has any impact on any one else and their ethical standing. There is no mechanism, I more than suspect. The only mechanism available is communication between actual persons: which can be indirect (say via money) but employs some sort of gift-exchange. Serve the other.

As for resurrection, well I don't believe that the dead come back to life, and that the stories of resurrection are about a community expecting the end, that the first of the resurrected has happened, and that this to be transformed messiah figure is coming soon to the still coming end, but not visiting them in the meantime (as you would expect, if resurrected) thanks to an intervening ascension. It's all nicely worked out for the Pauline salvation scheme, translating from the first Jewish Christian followers who carried on with their Jewish rituals and yet came to believe that Jesus was met in the meals. That sort of presence was affirmed in the early Churches and its fundamental Eucharist ritual and has been ever since, despite no end time appearing.

I suppose that this liberal suddenly looks a tiny bit like one of the evangelicals that Giles Fraser criticises: I can allow for death in Jesus's case to be the sacrificial service that is of a model to be repeated, but I give nothing to the resurrection, in that it is entirely mythical. Not quite...

(By the way, before people come up with the hoary old chestnut that the authorities would have displayed the body etc. to those denying the resurrection: the body would not only have rotted quickly but quite likely have gone into a lime pit; that unlike the Luke Emmaus Road tale no one would have been talking about the latest batch of deaths any differently than the usual fear (the movement of Jesus was but a handful of disturbers who occasionally pulled an excited crowd elsewhere - by the way, palm leaves are around in the autumn); and by the time anyone would have made any challenge to a working movement we are over ten years down the line and no body is identifiable at that length and the issue has to be why there was no tomb to pay some respects, the empty tomb being a later supporting tale. So take your pick from any old bones: there were plenty in mass graves.)

Of course an actual coming back to life is always a possibility, but then let's get the physicists and biologists working on that defiance of entropy.

Is there any point in the resurrection myth then? Well, you can sort of live a new life. Treat it as a parallel to baptism: the idea of giving up an old life, via a baptism, into a new life, and living a new life in a kind of resurrection from all that was old and past, and yet was still you. How do you live that life? You live it serving and even sacrificially, repeating that, to develop the self towards being selfless, like the Buddhist would.

I think this makes me a liberal. I think Giles Fraser is really rather orthodox and still wedded to some supernatural tales. He is only liberal compared with those whom he counts as colleagues.


Erika Baker said...

"Liberal" has to be something within certain parameters.
So within the conventional spectrum of Christian faith, Giles is truly liberal.
You are probably either extremely liberal or almost falling off the edge.
You really cannot take your own rejection of everything Christianity stands for and believes in as the standard for where liberalism starts.

For most of us, it is about God as he is revealed in Jesus. You can fill those words with your own meaning, but once you move away from the kernel that there is a "God" and that what he is about can be seen somehow in "Jesus", you can hardly call yourself a conventional liberal any longer.

Also, I do struggle with the idea that liberalism should denote a certain set of beliefs.
Isn't it much more about having your own beliefs - wherever they are on the spectrum - but being quite happy for others to have theirs too?

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

You've possibly contradicted yourself.

Liberal is not only liberal about something, which you seem to regard as legitimate and standard, and then say you struggle that it is of a certain set of beliefs.

Liberality is an approach to faith, any faith understood as a religion, religion or just trust. It is open, critical, goes where it will, and does not accept pre-set descriptions.

Some faiths don't translate into liberal to conservative easily, as they weren't constructed that way, but as a Westerner I can approach other faiths that way as I approach the near Eastern ones.

So it is not a rejection of Christianity as a starting point for me, but a liberal approach to faith including Christianity. I don't accept a kernel is there before I get to it. That's to be possibly discovered or not.

So I agree with the second part of your past paragraph.

Erika Baker said...

I don't think I contradicted myself, but I stumbled because of the too many meanings the word liberal has.

Your approach is liberal in that it questions everything until it can be proven. It leaves all options open... well, sort of..., in actual fact you have closed quite a few options for yourself... and it does not argue from a set of certainties.

But in religious dialogue, liberal ususally means something else. We are liberal or conservative from within the parameters of our faith.
So a liberal Christian is not the same as a liberal Muslim, is not the same as a liberal Hindu.

Your approach can lead to accepting any one or none of the world's faith, or to knitting yourself your own set of beliefs.
That is not wrong. But it comes from the other end of the spectrum.

You ask all questions and analyse all possible answers, and journey towards a conclusion that may be called Faith or not.

In conventional dialogue, when we we apply the word liberal to our faith, we have traveled in the other direction, having started out feeling reasonably comfortable within the parameters of what our creeds tell us, and then journeying towards a more and more liberal interpretation.

When we lose the kernel, most of us end up calling ourselves agnostic and outside our faith community, not liberals within it.

rick allen said...

I do not know where Mr. Fraser falls in the conventional conservative-to-liberal spectrum. But I'm pretty sure he doesn't understand Anselm. That, I think, anyone from glean from Cur Deus Homo, where the notion of the "wrath of God" figures hardly at all.

More interesting is his attempt to save Christianity from corrupt Western juridical ideas of atonement by appealing to the Orthodox. "The basic [bad] idea," he says, "is that human beings owe God an unpayable debt on account of their sin."

But this notion isn't purely Western. Look at section 20 of Athanasius' de incarnatione": "But since the debt owed ("opheilomenon") by all men had still to be paid,...he now on behalf of all men ofered the sacrifice and surrendered his own temple to death on behalf of all."

I know that you, personally, would consider both views nonsensical. I only write to suggest that the theological gap between East and West on the atonement is not so great as some would suggest.