Thursday, 28 May 2009

Affirming Liberalism 2009

On June 6th I along with active friends of mine from school days will join one or two others for something of a small overnight reunion as we all hit 50 years of age. We have all done different things, and materially I have achieved the least but remained relatively happy until recently.

On the same day down in Oxford will be the second Affirming Liberalism conference in Oxford. It moves around buildings in the University of Oxford and has two speakers, Canon Professor Keith Ward and Canon Professor Martyn Percy.

I would be interested; recently I wrote about the liberal publication Essays and Reviews and notice that it took up a large part of Mark Chapman's lecture in 2008, but reading it I can now see better that the perspective is much more that of Charles Gore editing Lux Mundi than the authors of Essays and Reviews. I just do not think that the lecture brings out the radical nature of the book, even if that radicalism was in terms of Victorian self-assurance about development if along with doubt about the future of belief. Keith Ward's lecture in 2008 was along regular Christian believing tramlines, arguing that Christianity is liberal (with the effect of making its content less liberal).

I would call myself a Religious Humanist who practises Christianity. This position, with adjustments for a non-State approach to religion and away from Hegelianism, is closer to the authors of Essays and Reviews than represented by either of the 2008 speakers. It is clear that a sort of moderately critical position is going to be taken by the 2009 conference too. Keith Ward seems to take a place in this gathering that Don Cupitt has taken regarding The Sea of Faith Conferences, but whereas Sea of Faith could not even carry the label Christian (because it occupied as space from theism across non-realism incorporating Christianity, Humanism, simpler and Western forms of Buddhism and progressive forms of Judaism) the Affirming Liberalism approach seems very Anglican.

At the moment it seems that Affirming Liberalism is asking to be legitimate in something of an institutional boundary game, and its legitimacy-seeking therefore leads towards its deliberate moderation.

Now moderation is a good thing, as is being reasonable, but you can be reasonable from several different stances. I cannot quite see the point about being moderate regarding the supernatural, for example, when it is reasonable to dismiss it as something approaching mumbo-jumbo. If someone says, for example, that God might be thinking about this or that regarding the direction of my life, I have to wonder what on earth this means. The notion that a deity exists with any interest is something so trivial as me (or you) when the twentieth century saw incredible human suffering and industrial killing without alteration seems just perverse. Events do not indicate active godly opinion, but if they do then such a God is a monster.

I think this is reasonable, and reasonable to conclude that such a God does not exist. I think it is entirely reasonable, for example, to look at the New Testament and conclude that dead people do not come back to any form of objective life. I do like to watch Randall and Hopkirk Deceased, but it's the only case I know of a chap listening to another chap talking who cannot be heard by anyone else (but he's good at blowing out candles). By the way, I always think Marty Hopkirk (Deceased) is very inept, as he ignores key events of suspects and their plans when he could be listening in to them pretty much continuously. Marty Hopkirk seems to disappear when the case is solved too, rather as Jesus disappears once a theological point has been made, though why he doesn't continue to watch his favourite television baffles me (I know, Jesus did not watch television). I think there is one adventure where Marty might be finally laid to rest in the other world and out of reach of Jeff Randall, a sort of equivalent of the Ascension, being a sort of final goodbye, or at least before the return at the end of the Christian novel of the world.

The point, for me, is that religion is a means of reflection and contemplation. It is a voluntary engagement with a set of texts from a different time and culture that facilitates some sort of ethical reflection. The Jesus of Judaism is entirely human, though he (of course) believed in an intense form of the supernatural going on around him and through everyone. Paul produces a salvation religion about Jesus, influencing others, and this produces other insights and raises all kinds of difficulties which even liberals often try to circumvent. Nevertheless, this religion about Jesus (as all approaches to Jesus must be) does produce today a relatively small, supportative, serving community of some value to itself and wider society as it does reflect and contemplate (as I would see the activity). Such is quite valuable.

(Isn't it funny, meanwhile, how many a liberal is quite happy to do the metaphor bit about the Ascension - it's one of the preaching opportunities often given away by clergy to Readers and curates, along with the baffling sermons for Trinity Sunday - but when it comes to the resurrection, an equivalent belief, the stakes are too high for such purely metaphorical treatment.)

So I am 50. When I was 30 in 1989 I was going towards Unitarian College for the purposes of being a minister, as about now in the year I was awarded my Ph.D, and before then when 26 while writing it I was contemplating Anglican ministry. These days 26 year olds contemplating ordained ministry are rather jumped at because you get more career out of them, whereas back in 1985 the notion of more experience was desired. Later in 1999 I gained an MA in contemporary Theology as also applied to social life, although my dissertation was intended to extend the Ph.D into Unitarian Universalism, despite my marginal activity with Unitarians at that time as in 2002-2003 when I did a schools PGCE in RE. But really the MA and the religious interest in the PGCE were memories of something that had gone by (and the main schools element of the PGCE was something that never connected afterwards). I haven't lost the knowledge of all these courses (indeed I pass them on within the In Depth group), but I just think that they are of something like a disappearing world.

I watched an infuriating BBC Four programme earlier (Wednesday) about the Celts after the Romans retreated from Britain and the legacy of Patrick in Ireland, Dan Snow's thesis being that the untouched-by-Rome Ireland turned from being a Pagan backwater into the new bringer of Christian civilisation to the Anglo-Saxon world (and beyond). It was full of cliches and assumptions, as per usual, for example, Hadrian's Wall represented "power" and stability of Rome - when actually it represented the limit of the power of Rome, a line in the sand, having tried to go further north. I presume Dan Snow did a history degree or some such, as well as having the benefit of his father as a newscaster and BBC nepotism. One piece of nonsense was a Catholic priest interviewed saying that the Sun was replaced by the Son, a small move for sun worshippers. Yes, mate, but that is in the English language and the Gaels have very different words for Sun and Son. Honestly!

But, anyway, what Dan Snow did not say was that the Christian view continued to represent (by absorption) all that the people in Ireland had worshipped, but took the ultimate Godly power out of nature itself and made it more singular and focused. There was a shift of perception. He was right to emphasise the importance of writing, but monasticism is also a kind of fortress Christianity that can leave a population relatively untouched (it is why Nestorian Christianity in China collapsed with no noticeable trace when the missionaries arrived).

We have been undergoing a similar shift in our era, not to a higher ultimate power, but to no ultimate power, and the viewpoint had intellectual beginnings but is now thoroughly dispersed. Explanations are now this-worldly and practical, with only remnants of weak and disconnected superstitions, and we regard responsibility as ours. It is why I think Affirming Liberalism is probably too little and too late, and represents an arrangement of thinking that might be reasonable for Christianity but isn't reasonable regarding the shift of intellectual and ordinary thinking that has taken place that Essays and Reviews saw happening in its own time.


hugh said...

Another interesting post Adrian . I find Keith Wards writings and lectures frustrating . He builds up you're hopes for something interesting like saying ...' for the modern world we must have new conceptions of God '. Then virtually in the next line you find out the new conception is .... the same old one only in different words . As I said frustrating .

Regards ...

laBiscuitnapper said...

(Isn't it funny, meanwhile, how many a liberal is quite happy to do the metaphor bit about the Ascension - it's one of the preaching opportunities often given away by clergy to Readers and curates, along with the baffling sermons for Trinity Sunday - but when it comes to the resurrection, an equivalent belief, the stakes are too high for such purely metaphorical treatment.)And with this you got me sold. I find the same thing equally baffling. It says rather a lot for modern Christianity, I think - not quite willing to go the whole hog, even for the sake of consistency, for fear that is not what you're 'supposed to do', instead of braving anew.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

What a lovely name, laBiscuitnapper, and for that and for content I'll add some of your musings to my blog list.