Saturday, 9 January 2010

Who Is He Then and What's the Institution?

I'm something of a peaceful terrorist over at Fulcrum, the evangelical website and forum. I have been likened there to G. K. Chesterton's candid friend in my criticisms of Anglicanism. According to Gilbert K. Chesterton in Orthodoxy:

I venture to say that what is bad in the candid friend is simply that he is not candid. He is keeping something back - his own gloomy pleasure in saying unpleasant things. He has a secret desire to hurt, not merely to help.

It is not so. It is more in regret that I have criticised the drift in Anglicanism towards being narrower in actual doctrine, more bureaucratic and becoming self-destructive on the gay issue, as led into this pit by the current Archbishop of Canterbury. I did have the option of going elsewhere as a principal religious identity, if still rather freelance, and that's what in the end I have done, despite the local situation.

My space is in the borderlands regarding many a religious institution, but the institutions move as much as does an individual. The Anglican Church was a struggle before, but now it is reining in its borders and some of us are clearly on the outside. But I also have positive (as well as negative) things to say about Unitarianism. It was really the case that had I moved to another part of the country, for example, that I would first look at the local Unitarian situation, and indeed this even theoretically applies in the United States.

Having no desire to defend any aspect of Anglican doctrine from the inside, so to speak, I have a certain freedom to point things out that many an liberal Anglican might not in evangelical company, simply because a liberal Anglican wishes to appear a full member of the tribe and 'orthodox'. It is often the liberal bending like this that leads me to be critical of Anglican liberals, though I tend to hold off because they are having a rather difficult time at the moment. And, also, if I, in my remaining input, can contribute towards the destruction of the Anglican Covenant then it will produce the possibility of an Anglicanism far more flexible for my liberal friends in the West. I also think that informal links and contacts are far more likely to prevent a ruthless and unethical Anglicanism in parts of the Third World than is a Covenant, simply because the Covenant is biased towards conserving and more doctrine realised than less. That's why evangelicals and centrist Catholics want it - because it is imperial towards their interests: it attempts to win their arguments not via the argument but via bureaucracy and structures.

Plus it is a good Unitarian stance to be anti-credal, anti a list of rules to impose over one's interpretation, experience, forms of talk.

An evangelical also asked me a question about what Unitarianism does:

Might be worth considering that Jesus Christ's NT teaching shows what denies the Son doesn't have the Father either (as a summary 1 John 2 & 4) and is the spirit of anti-Christ. Isn't that what Unitarianism does?

My reply is to turn this matter around (as I write, this is yet to be added to the thread), because the question involves the wearing of theological blinkers that might not be noticed by the wearer:

The first ideological and theological Unitarians in central Europe and in England and Wales read their Bibles in a literalistic fashion (German Biblical criticism came later) and they could not see the Doctrine of the Trinity. They very much affirmed that Jesus Christ was the Son, as indeed they believed in the miracles and the resurrection. What they did not believe was that the Son was co-equal and co-eternal with God. He was either God's first born of creation, who then proceeded with creation, or, and became more the case, they believed with Paul that Jesus was chosen by God to be the sole mediator of God and means to salvation.

As for later Unitarianism, that was affected by German biblical criticism, as indeed were all denominations, and also by an evolutionary view of liberalism rather than one tied particularly to a theological insight and, in Britain and America, the original merchant class that became a capitalist middle class and all that liberalism implied to them, including a French revolutionary spirit and a Scottish led Enlightenment. The later British Unitarians were rather more 'Anglican' than the earlier denominationalists, though the Americans coming from the Puritans were never quite 'Anglican' because of the division there - with the one exception of Kings Chapel in Boston which was (like Britain's Essex Church) an Anglican into Unitarian development.

So the answer is no, originally, they did not deny the Son because it is you who impose the doctrine of the Trinity on to the Bible whereas they were stricter literalists. Later on it was a case of Unitarianism more honestly dealing with and incorporating German Biblical criticism rather than stretching the meaning of the Trinity so that so many people mean by its use today (an example of God the Trinity being in God's own community) what others would have regarded as loose and heretical.

In other words, where we are at any time is relative to where others are. There is no doubt, and including among evangelicals, that what constitutes acceptable Anglican explanation today would have been regarded as heretical in the past and more confined to Unitarians. What's the same is the attempt by Anglicans to use the same liturgical language, even updated to modern expression, to say these looser interpretations as well as older ones. That's the difference between de jure and de facto - the latter actuality is much the looser and more practical. But when the movement is going the other way, then the people inhabiting the borderlands find that the institution that once might have caught them up is actually receding and looking less likely as a kind of home.

One issue for a church home is a cultural one, and I admit that I am a bit of a cultural Anglican in terms of liturgical aesthetics. But this is hardly enough to warrant a membership ticket. Then there is a question of belief. How does it come down in simplest terms? Here it is for me: that there is a rumour of angels (possibility of transcendence), a need for enchantment in this tedious existence of ours, and a social anthropological function of religion and ritual. As for Christianity, it is a cultural product at each and every stage. It can and often doesn't give insight into the rumour of angels. The rules that academic disciplines established over time - starting in the nineteenth century and building on the Enlightenment - matter, and do severely limit what can be claimed for any man, book or religion, especially one so difficult to penetrate historically, with a community already interpreting and back-projecting according to concepts which are in large part antithetical to the way we think now for explanations both intellectually and practically in the every day.

So for me it is an obvious matter that Jesus is a man and only a man, who lived and died an ordinary biological life, and even the greatest human insights in the world are just that - insights. Even if these insights were 'lived' (and here we stretch the history, and meaning) they can be lived (and have been) by anyone. These insights might well be a hook for the sort of transcendence we might like to think exists, but if there is transcendence it is obviously a far broader thing than the movements and ideas of a man in one time and place. And I am not interested in the cult of an individual.

In the end, if you come to that view you have to then ask an institutional question, and at the very least whether the Anglican institution is appropriate. Probably not, is the answer, because it asks too much for it to give up the cult of that individual. Even if you stretch the interpretation into broad categories (of ideals and intentions, of living, of being) it is still, liturgically, focused on the cult of that individual. And that's the institutional problem once you take the logic to its obvious conclusion. In the end the God issue (realism, non-realism, real absence, via negativa, personalism, high and dry transcendence), however important, is not the issue, but it does all come to rest on the issue of the cult of the individual. Once that is tackled the rest just is a waiting game.


Erika Baker said...

"These insights might well be a hook for the sort of transcendence we might like to think exists, but if there is transcendence it is obviously a far broader thing than the movements and ideas of a man in one time and place. And I am not interested in the cult of an individual."

OK, so let's assume that many individuals throughout history had these insights. Let's assume that some of their stories were written down and some of them have founded world religions.
To do the insights justice, you still have to decide which person speaks most to you personally, and you then do well to focus on that person - at least until you've become such a mystic that you can take the best from his or her insights and from those of others too.

But most of us aren't like that. We don't have the brains, the time or the energy to deeply study all religions leaders and their thoughts, never mind all other possible insight-bearers. And so we focus on one particular one.
If his insights are genuine, it shouldn't matter too much that we only focus on him.

Put the other way round - if you wanted people to understand some of the insights that can be had, where would you start? How would you speak to them? What language would you use?

You can see how a focus develops and that it need not be all negative or idolatrous.

Daniel Lee said...

drdanfee: Thanks lots A. for your reminder phrase, ... rumor of angels. I like how it resonates with my own life story. I would companion the angels bit with a second phrase, ... rumor of incarnation? And basic to both poetries is a persistent sense that people in general and thinkers in particular can come to angels or to incarnations, both from the bottom up and from an ineffable divine top down. Don't let those Fulcrum and other CoE evangelicals read you categorically out of God's big tents; their cherished Outsider Statuses are heuristic and involve power plays and power needs just as much as any human social-political-economic encounter or institution. If Fulcrum wins the CoE day, then of course I myself will hardly ever be welcome in worship, save for possibly interfaith days?

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

No, I mean trees, grass, colours, insights, art, silence, music - transcendence is far greater than a man. Rumours of angels are the rumours that the dots join up into something mystical and greater, but they are just rumours.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

Rumour of incarnation? Well, a very distant possibility for me, but we can vary, in that the rumour is bigger than that which deifies humanity in one instance.