Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Dead Cat

Wow. That was one of the liveliest of In Depth Group meetings for some time. David Jenkins as a bishop had no detractors there at all, and I think I made the case that stuck - that is, that this man believed in God acting, that history is reality and God is reality, and that we think now about autonomous forces (practical, this-worldly explanations) but for Jenkins this presents a problem that God is still present and needs explanation along with the more obvious culture that gave rise to the myth making and yet evidence-pointing in the New Testament - principally evidence of the resurrection as God acting, God acting through Jesus, and in redeeming the world, and how a 'me' connects with that. This to me is strong belief.

We stayed on topic throughout, partly because part of the topic was the treatment he received from so many in the Church, and that even now he represents a still quoted unacceptable line to cross for some. If he is angrier in older age, swearing in the odd sermon, and if he came nearer to atheism while being a bishop at Durham, it is because of the way he was treated. We have the "tough" message from the Bishop of Willesden if you want liberal bishops, and raised was the issue of the extraordinary and depressing appointment of someone like Donald Allister as Bishop of Peterborough, where it seems the policy now in the emergence of bishops is to include every extreme so that there cannot be coherence. We wondered if Donald Allister's "faith journey" was over some years or between his appointment and the press conference. Also, if the job of bishops is just to uphold all the doctrines as given, why not just have robots? They can be fed the lines to produce for each situation, and that will do.

What made this different was the personal element regarding me. First of all, the Fulcrum exchanges had Bishop Pete Broadbent mention me out of the blue, as a way of doing theology, and not what the C of E should be doing, when it was an argument about bishops and I cannot remember myself being made into one. But, secondly, I departed from the script (which I ad-lib from anyway, in a detail of explaining what it is trying to say, and speeding through or skipping bits), and had a forensic go at David Jenkins's views.

In saying these are 'strong' views I had a go at this distinction that Jenkins made (in the Radio programme that God does not manouvre things, but works through peoples' faith - thus a conjouring trick with bones only proves a conjouring trick with bones). I'd just thought of it. Presumably if God acts, and people respond with faith, then that faith orientation, that excitement, means the chemical activity rushing around in the brain is from God acting, which is kenotic, whereas apparently this God cannot reassemble bones. How can such a God shove chemicals around the brain, in acting, producing faith as part of redeeming the world, but cannot manouvre things equally as physical (as it is against naturalistic understanding that we use today).

Then the argument about the difference between the resurrection and virgin birth, I said, has two elements about it. One is that the more evident one is nearer the end of his life, that the myth making goes on, compared with something long before, and one is that these appearances accounts point to some sort of event. But surely the issue is only the speed of myth making, and if you are in a highly charged, changable, expectant time, very charismatic, and you have the Jewish belief in a Messiah coming, then myths can develop within and between the differently located communities very quickly indeed. The higher speed no more points to evidence than slower speed. Plus these appearances accounts are principally theological. And as for pointing to evidence, presumably for example his mother, who's about, the his father seems to disappear somehwat, could have said something like, "Well I sort of know what I did do and didn't do and then found myself pregnant." In other words, there is just the same likelihood of evidence at the different ends of his life. Now there is no automatic pointing of evidence at all, and more than this, doing history is not about what happened or didn't, but is about documentation. And the documentation is not there that satisfies historical tests [except by secondary means]. So, this being the case, we then move to the fact that there was their way of thinking and our way, and I think we are on to something today, because of science, social science, how the arts function and so on, and, I mean, they thought that people died because of sin and its weight, whereas we have the view that people conk out biologically - under 60 living in Russia, around 80 in better parts of the UK, and some say this could become very extended. And I said that if I was to die now on the carpet, within minutes you could not revive me, because of the effect on the brain - why people frozen in ice really will need technological advance to revive them - and so it really would take a massive effort to resurrect and transform. So in the absence and ambiguity of where the documentation points, I conclude there is no such thing as an actual resurrection, and is as much a mythic escalation as the rest of it.

Told by one please don't do that - drop dead on the carpet - I said "Oh no, you might be very pleased to get rid of this heretic," that is, I won't be coming back.

When one gave a view that you can believe in God and think nothing special of Jesus, I said funnily enough I've come round to that view whereas I didn't have it before. Before, reading John Robinson, Cupitt and so on, all the argument from the 60s and 70s and after has been about God. And indeed in the Unitarians before I used to get frustrated with all this God talk (when Jesus was hardly mentioned) when I wanted to talk about reality and life lived and forget this God stuff. So at Unitarian College I was going around preaching atheism and got myself into a lot of trouble. Now, however, though he is interesting and the rest, I think there is nothing special about Jesus whereas I do think there might be something like transcendence or I'm just easier about it. So I've become more like the point of view expressed.

But then there was a sort of corrective necessary, that (positively) I heard that I manage to make the search more difficult, and I replied that's what it is all about, but another comment suggested that all this examination about history and so on in the end is not about faith. So I said well yes, that's right because in the end Jenkins himself said God took a risk and faith is a risk; you make a decision, and, I added, there is also this business in the end of what the Church teaches - a sort of collective decision to follow. I said that is why now I do not take the Eucharist. I still attend, because there is spirituality and things to engage with and might change my mind, but I actually dissent from what is presented. So there is the individual view and then the collective view. I put also a view that unlike a liberal position there is a critical one that in the end continues to present even the most argued against material because without it something is lost. In my case, once I come to a conclusion about something, though I can change my mind, I no longer include it.

Having said that Jesus was "nothing special" I'd still nevertheless mentioned that in this view of people dying from sin, ill from sin, poor with sin, and the richer and longer living having less of it, along comes a Jesus who says, "Don't be taken in by appearances because these well off types have plenty of it, but come here poor people," with a tap on the head, the demons have gone, and now go away and sin no more ready to enter the coming Kingdom. And I did say that with the ethical there is still the life lived. But then, mention as ever, Gandhi - this leaves nothing unique. We'd already seen with Maurice Wiles that a distinctive unique Jesus is not unique at all. There are endless thousands of ethical people who have self-sacrified.

If this sounds like a lot about me, then partly that's because of how it turned, but I am very reluctant to give accounts of what other people say when it's a meeting where people can talk freely. I've probably written too much about other views already. But I'm acutely aware that my approach is very unusual, and there is an element of protest involved (let's say) because this is theological examination and this is what theological examination involves (or should). It is, or should be, its own forensic discipline - it is about how many angels on the head of a pin.

And also the liveliness about it was because here was a point of summarising too - Robinson had failed, The Myth of God Incarnate people failed, Cupitt failed, and despite a strong claim faith Jenkins failed in a Church clearly going into reverse. Some of us think it is far worse now too (I'd say the Church of England and Anglican Communion in terms of leadership is becoming unethical).

That's why I'm elsewhere again, gone off, if semi-detached and not going to be institutionalised by anyone. Anyway, I told a joke that 'Reverend Bob' passed on last Sunday. A Unitarian little girl's cat dies, and a Christian old lady bends down and says to the child, "Don't worry, it will be with Jesus now." The Unitarian little girl replies, "Why, what does Jesus want with a dead cat?"


Erika Baker said...

“How can such a God shove chemicals around the brain, in acting, producing faith as part of redeeming the world, but cannot manouvre things equally as physical (as it is against naturalistic understanding that we use today).”

You are still arguing against something no-one is saying.

When you’re in love and you respond to the person who has touched your heart, you cannot claim that she is personally intervening in your life and making chemical changes in your brain.
Why would responding to God be any different?
Communication is not external intervention.

And while you and your commentator might agree that in the end it’s all about examining history and not about faith, I would still say that doing theology without God, and religion without faith is completely missing the point.
That doesn’t matter for you personally, but it doesn’t help when you try to mediate other theologians to people and consistently fail to grasp what it is they’re talking about.

Let it be about how many Angels on the head of a pin for you, but let’s also agree that this is a view that people of faith find desperately limited and completely missing the bigger picture.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

No, this is a theoretical end (in this part) discussion. David Jenkins makes the point that God acts. Assuming that, he says that God acts through psychological processes, but not by moving objects, on the basis that this is all more naturalistic. But it is not, because God acting on humans is to affect their electro-chemical activity, at some point at least, even if it is at the point of internal perception (still moving their electro-chemical activity).

This is in contrast to having a set of human religious myths to which people invent God and the rest, about which behaviour is motivated but which is all purely social and anthropological.

It takes some very sophisticated theological talk indeed to say that such purely human, collective and individual myth making and responding is God acting, especially given a Bonhoeffer and less so Barth (Barth with the ahistoricity removed!) theology. I concede that it can just about be claimed, but then activity is being ascribed to a divine agent that is more properly and realistically simply human, and that Jenkins isn't then quite eating the cake he claims he is having.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

The other point here is that it is not for me, nor for anyone else, to tell people what sort of faith to have. What we are doing is looking at the various recipes around and examining them for what they are. There is no affirming here of each one. Jenkins is looked at for his consistency and for the relationship to the Church. Same with Cupitt, the Myth people and so on, right back, and so long as I'll present I'll do the same with the more traditional and evangelical stuff.

It's not an easy ride: and when someone said she can say that I make the search harder, that is what it is all about.

There are a couple of very liberal people in that group, and it's no easier for them. In earlier sessions I've addressed some of the assumptions they have made in conversation. The one person so far who seems to be best off is someone liberal-orthodox and has encountered the arguments. I don't know quite how he does it, but as we go along into other theologies I think we might find out. I suspect it is a separation of the whole individual argument from the business of accepting a Church and its spiritual and doctrinal disciplines, but I don't know.

I'm only presenting for a while. The previous presenter was a very liberal chap who sort of ran out of topics and then I picked it up by designing a systematic course. I've been in my own comfort zone for a while and soon I'll be into areas that require examination beyond my usual arenas.

Erika Baker said...

"Assuming that, he says that God acts through psychological processes, but not by moving objects, on the basis that this is all more naturalistic. But it is not, because God acting on humans is to affect their electro-chemical activity, at some point at least, even if it is at the point of internal perception (still moving their electro-chemical activity)."

You’re assuming that there is a God who is singling out individuals which he then manipulates electronically or chemically.
But it’s much more like a symphony playing quietly somewhere and some people hearing it and others not. And of those who hear it, some respond, others don’t.
It’s not that God intervenes selectively in some people’s lives, it’s more that the same message is consistently given out to the world and some get it while others don’t.

So I still think that your unawareness of what faith is about means you don't really understand what Jenkins is (or might be!) saying.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

Well thanks very much for assuming I don't know what faith is about when you do!

Erika Baker said...

I'm sorry, I didn't want to be presumptious.
Maybe I'm not finding the right words.

We have often talked about our basic differences in our experience, that I believe in this exclusive "kernel" which you don't appear to have experienced, and which you increasingly appear to be rejecting on an intellectual level too. At least I understood you to have been saying that repeatedly.

It's that difference I have been trying to talk about. There's no right or wrong about it. But we're back in the picture gallery, where someone who doesn't see the paintings has conversations about the exhibition with people who do see the paintings.
There's a sense that, at some level, although they all talk about the same gallery, architecture, visiting hours, visiting protocol etc., never the Twain shall meet.

Correct me if I misunderstood you! I'm reading this blog because I want to understand!

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

My faith is about, what is it I have done, regarding the other, and should I have done it. What have they done, and should they have done it. Sit down, keep quiet, hear some words that may bounce off such a question, then later change if change can happen.

I think this is found inside the Christian tradition.

It is also quite Buddhist.

God may or may not be involved. Faith is a risk. A lot of it is don't know.

Erika Baker said...

"what is it I have done, regarding the other, and should I have done it. What have they done, and should they have done it. Sit down, keep quiet, hear some words that may bounce off such a question, then later change if change can happen."

That, I absolutely love!
Thank you.

Anonymous said...

You clearly do not know Donald Allister. He is anything but depressing!