Saturday, 1 October 2011

What I am also Telling the Ministry Committee

The application needs a statement of religious position, within a thousand words. I wrote this (936):

Statement of Religious Position

I retain the position, as explained in my 1998 MA Dissertation and talk to the Hull and District Theological Society, that I promote the 'gospel of plurality in proximity': that is the witness of difference coming together and not seeking particularly an ideological or faith-position consensus. This is a social gospel because society is highly diverse and yet diversity can be shown to come together and share.

The idea behind this is communicative reasoning in an arena of ideas, but not that of Jurgen Habermas as if to achieve an instrumentally unaffected point of reason. Although I am not a thoroughgoing open-postmodernist, I am so in religion in that I regard it as being like one of the arts. No one can say, in the arts, what is most true or the best. There are crafts and skills, qualities and satisfactions, but there is either a clash of truths (Isaiah Berlin) or a relativity of shaping and in the end it comes down to the latter.

I am not a thoroughgoing open-postmodernist like Don Cupitt (though his Jesus and Philosophy was a later realist wobble due to his Jesus Seminar attachment), who says he follows the dominant narratives provided by science and social science simply because they are the large scale successful narratives. Rather, one can carry out deductive experiments in sciences and social sciences and receive answers one would not like. This anchors them and offers some small scale realism and even objectivity. Larger explanatory paradigms will shift but the investigated details matter. Religion cannot do this: it can only borrow some techniques when it moves into history (e.g. the historicities or houses of history) and defy this when generating in pseudo-science.

In taking a theology discussion group in an Anglican church, I came to the view that at no point did liberal Christianity actually work, in terms of securing Christ at a centre, although I had slightly altered my religious position to that at the borderline between non-realism and real absence, and I was able to use the language of transcendence more easily. This has been carried forward in a more relaxed manner in a Unitarian setting. I'm well versed in the language of Christianity and can use it, but I don't believe in any of its core claims and also think it gives us no information.

I did have an anthropological view of religious ritual that was dangerously structuralist. I still think there is mileage in the notion that we come together in material cost and hope to gain spiritual benefit via the practice of some ritual, often strange and indirect, for which a product is a binding together communally and an intention to go out and serve the world. The problem is that this 'universal' can be deconstructed, in the actual particular, as to what people think they are doing and do: in other words, nothing beats a bit of qualitative ethnography to undermine apparent structural universals.

Rather than providing information or indeed locating universal gift-exchange (but nothing prevents these: they are just unreliable when based on myth systems), religion is about praxis, about using resources and effects towards a spiritual goal - a discipline found in worship that I understand as reflection and contemplation. Like art, it is about being appreciative and worthwhile. I have moved slightly towards the position of John Hick, but retain the notion that each of us has dialects of languages that means translating across different understandings is problematic. When pushed, I revert to signals of transcendence and not a Real and these are contained within out understandings.

I have no time for conservative forms of postmodern religion because in their postmodern bubbles their premodern claims contradict the research that social scientists (and scientists) do. Even less strident postliberal positions (like Lindbeck; Liechty is an open postliberal) that claim to be cultural-linguistic only freeze culture to some past idealised point. It denies wider cultural anchoring (indeed it denies the objectivity of this world, as it is in a line from Karl Barth). I see hints of this even when some Unitarians say that our chapels should be recognisably Christian in what they do even if not in what they believe. Religion, even as art, must relate to the common narratives ordinary people use, which are increasingly this worldly and practical, driven by a sociology of knowledge that derives from technology doing things.

If Karl Barth leads to one kind of postmodernism, then James Martineau leads to the other. He argued for the subjective centre of religious authority, yet retained a more conserving collective language of liturgy. I have my own interest in liturgy (not complete in the book lists above). These two, collective objective and individual subjective when pressed against each other collapse into a kind of postmodernism of faith, and do so as chapels continue to give pulpit led reasoned services. The collective forms clash with individual sentiment, and force the language into being more poetic and less precise, and signs that are increasingly of their own pointing. The upshot is the positive impact of what these words and artistic forms of support do to one's own spiritual road. In a situation evolving liturgy, the upshot is one towards where lex orandi lex est credendi (the Alexander Schemann position) and yet must be incomplete for individuals and therefore only a rough guide to collective identity. I remain arguing for more artistic support of all kinds, and less of the long Puritan shadow. There is a shift more towards a Buddhist style praxis and individualism, through the practice of worship.

Adrian Worsfold 1 October 2011


James said...

Ah, you academics! What I think I understand is intriguing, indeed. In that lovely phrase "borderline between non-realism and real absence," what do you mean by real absence. My Buddhist heart leaps...


Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

As I understand it, the Western world of thought to produce a kind of Buddhism gave up on realism, but the Buddhists never did, but it is a realism that deep down is full of paradox. There is a strong association with the via negativa. If there are points of realism in your theology - Christian based theology - then there is a point reached using via negativa of the pure mysterious but which can be felt, in more liturgical terms, as absence, but can also be for a pessimist a transcendence that has also removed itself. There is nothing to do but survey the human religious effort in stark terms as a form of loss. This is still within the realm of realism. But, for me, the languages of science, social science and religion operate differently, and religion is our own construction and quite a weak construction too.

Simon Mapp said...

Hi Adrian,
Certainly a very academic piece of writing - of course this is a true and honest reflection of your erudition. I had to read it through a few times to try to fully understand your position... I'm not absolutely sure I still do...

Is there just the slightest danger of coming across a little too academic - you know: 'Anyone can make something complicated but it takes a real genius to make something simple'.

This is not a criticism of your position; As James, I also like what I understand of your position - but it's very heavy going I just wonder if that may be of concern to a committee looking for ministers?

Having said all that; I seem to recall having read some of your sermons that are more digestible.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

The most digestible sermon was the last one, that lasted five minutes without notes. No, this tells the Ministry Committee who I am in some style as well as substance, and although I can speak standard English this also says if they want someone on the other side of HMO or UCM one day they know where to look.