Thursday, 18 February 2010

In Depth

The group with papers on knees opted to hear instead (while looking at the papers) my Sunday sermon to the Unitarians that I'd advertised was "simpler". This raised laughter afterwards, on the grounds if that was simpler... I said one reaction on Sunday was the argument was followed until I fired names about contemporary physics and maths and self-generating patterns. Personally I think sermons are a pretty ridiculous form of communication, and mine are necessarily available to be read (I cannot remember what was said this morning, where a normally extempore sermon was replaced by one read out for Ash Wednesday). It was interesting for me that I was asked to read again the last paragraph of mine, for the purposes of precision and comment, from one of the most deliberately liberal leaning and John Spong enjoying members, often grumbling at church doctrines and the public image of a Christian people within who believe the impossible...

As for Unitarianism, I have long argued for relativity, for questioning realism, and for seeing religion as more like art. Religion, I think, is about something more personal, deep, reflective and contemplative. It is not about doctrines that rely on proofs. The proofs are not there. Reason did break away from Aquinas's absorption, but reasoning went on even to dig the grave of its own founder Aristotle, as well as those like Aquinas and Ib Sina who used him.

This person was immediately keen to stress the mystery of and existence of divinity: the first time in my experience of jumping towards the defence of a position. Of course I did point to an earlier or even more general view, but it is not mine:

Unitarians were, of course, modernists. They evolved their beliefs, even if they also believed that truth is one and ultimately, if mysteriously, guaranteed by God. However, I want to tackle this.

My sermon was not a typical Unitarian sermon, as it was 'academic' and they usually are not, comparatively, but not exclusively. The discussion we had also, interestingly, moved more or less directly to science, that common perceptions are just ways people have to describe something most simply. For example, the expanding universe; it is expanding its space: what is it expanding into? I said that's like asking what comes before time: it is not expanding into space! It is like an inverted ball. As for the universe accelerating, so that eventually it ends up dark, distant and lifeless, and presumably time disintegrates or becomes meaningless: come back in fifty years and there'll be another theory - that is how science works.

I said we and our universe could be just characters in a hand-held virtual computer game, but then you have to ask about what and who made the being that holds the computer game; and that the God as first cause in all such chain reasoning is just a rules of the game to stop asking - but the rule-breaking was echoed in the room: where then did the so called eternal God come from (on the same basis of questions that cannot have answers will be asked).

Interesting then. Once religion had become flattened and part of ordinary scientific or social scientific discourse, then the discussion was less a complaint about religion and its construction and more an examination of its defence, more a questioning around the sciences and more a broader examination altogether.

There was one question about the Trinity and the Bible. There is no doctrine of the Trinity in the Bible, nor of Original Sin. I said after a charismatic leader and in the context of end-time expectation, beliefs change very rapidly, and the early Christians imported terms from the Old Testament [their scriptures] giving different twists of meanings, and so we get what some have called a late 'economic trinity' in a few Bible texts but no actual doctrine, not about being co-equal and co-eternal as a definition. Once reason Muhammad in the Qur'an got the Trinity wrong was that it was probably transmitted to him by a group like the Ebionites who were not trinitarian Christians. It's why a Jewish view of Christianity didn't entirely die at 70 CE [and even today there are small groups - beyond today's right wing political media-evangelical last days stealers - who have a Jewish view of Yeshua and a fulfilling in advance Messiah].

So it was interesting that the usual conversation didn't happen, which would have perhaps focused on the Renaissance and Enlightenment and the re-emergence of Reason alone. We did get on to local facts that evidence the decline of Christianity, being almost a melancholic reflection, and therefore the lack of traditions expressed now in education that did once insert the basics of Christian knowledge. I did, though, suggest, that an explanation underlying Christian decline is simply that people have an ordinary, practical, this-worldly view for problem solving that follows on from technology: that this has filtered down from a once intellectual stance.

And this melancholy moved seamlessly when someone mentioned the recent General Synod Methodist suggestion of its own demise. Again there was local reflection, such as regarding the chapel building. What was interesting was that local realities or a formal scheme to wind up the Methodist Church might have the same outcome - my thought of say an 11 o'clock Sunday service in the Methodist style held inside the Anglican church until it fades away - a better solution, it was thought, than in some local ecumenical sharing schemes of the Anglican way one fortnight and the Methodist way another fortnight. Even if so, a change of building would be enough to stop some Methodists attending. I made the point that as well as decline, the other aspect is the ending of the pure Oxford Movement traditionalism which had blocked the Methodist absorption into the Church of England in 1972. It is more possible as such Anglicans soon run away to Roman Catholic ordinariates or end up waiting in corners to claim a pension.

There would have been intense indigestion had I attempted, as once intended, to include a Protestant traditional side in this presentation, so next time we agreed that we will focus on the Puritans. Of course I will look for a few twists in the tale that have resonance for now, both as a Protestant traditionalism and as a liberal development.


Gary Paul Gilbert said...

Sometime ago, I realized that the arc of the Christian story -- Adam, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Paul, Church -- didn't fit the shape of actual events. Humankind began to spread over the earth about 60,000 years ago (what happened? development of language?)and to practice agriculture and build cities about 8,000 years ago. Jesus comes late to history -- and was little known over most of the earth for another 1,500 years. Not an efficient engine of salvation.

Now Adrian has given me some theoretical backing for my intuition. I didn't understand his essay on Episcopal Café -- his invoking of fractals and chaos theory there seemed like trying to press trendy terms into theological service (as ideas like "uncertainty principle" have been used by some). His sermon printed here helps me get his point -- and say thanks:

"We do not have Truth with a capital T, but truths relative to themselves. . . . we have to analyse only from the first relevant phenomenon in any chain of reasoning. And in chaos theory, we cannot know the outcome of so many events simply because tiny differences iterate into hugely different outcomes. . . . Christianity is a linear time system: divine cause, intervention and outcome is the very stuff of Christianity. . . . Yet the whole basis for this, in Pure Forms, and in causal chains, is dead and gone, and reasoning is something that has to be relative and phenomena based. . . . I have long argued for relativity, for questioning realism, and for seeing religion as more like art. Religion, I think, is about something more personal, deep, reflective and contemplative. It is not about doctrines that rely on proofs. The proofs are not there."


Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

It does sometimes take several goes to get a point across that at first is so unclear. It's partly why I have descended into humour.