Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Fred Brown the Illiberal

Sunday involved for me a reminder by the service taker (pictured) about Fred Brown. I was asked to prepare Salvation Army type music and indeed I did, although little by them in fact.
That it was about Major Fred Brown in particular was interesting because I knew something about him. This was a chap in The Salvation Army in 1970 who tried to be their John Robinson and was treated rather more directly - removed of his duties and later dismissed from the Salvation Army entirely. John Robinson ended up in Cambridge relative academic obscurity. Fred Brown was also trying to be a Harvey Cox in the meaning of secular.

The rather long reading in the service from Secular Evangelism reminded me that young people up to 1970 were undergoing a change in perspective and yet they knew, he said, all the biblical stories. Had he written the book today, he would find an absence of young people and, of course, they don't even know those stories.

From the very beginning, the Salvation Army with its populist militarism and pop music of the day - brass bands - made an appeal to the working class that resulted in only fracturing off a small segment of the respectable (upward viewing) working class. Today it has become a religious anomaly, out of time and place. It retains its social reputation through charitable work but religiously it is an echo of its former self.

The idea of secular Christianity is that Christianity is still true, but it is hidden as Church and all its salvation core is to be found in the actual busy lives of urban people. So an anonymous Christ is redemptively at work. There is a sense in which the Barth-Bonhoeffer and later Death of God line is not liberal, but indeed a secular low evangelical existence. The liberal version would be the Robinson stress on Tillich mixed with Bultmann and then Bonhoeffer, where there are lots of questions asked. The 60s and 70s people pushed the idea that busy, urban people didn't ask questions but got on with things.

The problem is that invisibility, never mind changes of metaphor, involve all sorts of compromises and shifts. Is work or meaningful activity really prayer? Is sin social and corporate, in the main, trapping people into unavoidable compomises? Is being religionless necessarily being political? Sometimes a secular Christian's view of God is simply an active Good, trying to avoid metaphors from below such as Tillich's Ultimate Goodness. Now, Fred Brown as that Robinson figure in his Faith Without Religion, SCM (1971) has a chapter on 'Our Ultimate Concerns' (128-139) but it is not clear that Brown looks from below in terms of a secular person religious questioning.

This brand of theology hasn't really survived, except as a diversion into literary biblical conserving postmodernism. The claim was that the whole Christian thing could happen in the secular, but one wondered whether there had to be a supernatural realm still operating that simply was unobserved and unobservable. Karl Barth had it that way as one-way revelation, but then for him culture was Godless and religionless, whereas these folks saw the actual secular as God-worked. Jesus may have been human and pointed away from himself, but they were still having this person who was uniquely doing redemptive activity, and that involves some sense of other existence beyond the secular! Brown in his 'Our Ultimate Concerns' chapter states:

Only from within a human relationship of love and forgiveness is it possible to glimpse the reality of God's love and forgiveness, a relaity which is admittedly filled out by Jesus Christ, but one which clearly is not known only by conscious faith in him. Otherwise, how can we explain the faith of secular man, his faith in the gospel of resurrection and his intuitive conviction that 'justice and mecy are at the centre of the universe'? He does not think and say that 'God is dead and that Love is God'. The God of institutional religion appears to be dead; he knows that and takes it for granted, but he does not care enough about God as such to worry about whether he is dead or alive. God seems unquestionably irrelevant, and that's all that matters to secular man. The significant thing is, however, that he goes on living as though the essential elements of Chirstianity are valid. Beyond his knowing he dwells within the revelation that Jesus brought into the world and thereby explores the truth that sets men free. (134-135)

Talk about having it both ways! The answer is simple: the secular person can simply be optimistic that life has been lived to its fullest in its presentation, or that one has been in a position of acceptance. This is what being a transitory human means - we come, we make of it what we can and do, and then we go, and we are not unhappy about it. Fred Brown might think that the whole scaffolding of another reality is still there, brought in by some Palestinian rabbi of necessary divine power, but if others don't then we don't. Indeed Fred Brown is not an example of a secular person, with all his questions and retained affirmations. And if such a doctrinal reality is operating, the secular person ought to be told about it because he or she is lacking some essential information.

So no ultimate wonderings there, except by Fred Brown and the others he has used in his Barth to Bonhoeffer and Death of God (but not dead) theology. As I suggest, these days the inheritors of this strand will do a Bultmann in a conservative sense and go to the drama of the gospel record and the interaction of God with text at one (big) remove from general culture. They will want to ask the secular person to transfer over to the drama as a believing participant. You cannot say it is 'true' in worldly terms, but it is true in revelatory and dramatic terms, as a story underpinned by the invisible God made visible there.

I think this is a cop-out and a nonsense. Narratives are important to a patterning human mind, but that is it. But all these stories are more like art, because there is no test for them. History cannot reach the pseudo-biography, except to speculate over sayings, plus the shift from that into 'orthodoxy' really is cultural; and science and social science are uninterested - really uninterested. The death of Christianity as an intellectual explanation for anything is not some shift into a dark zone but because it simply has had it except as a piece of art work or as yet another means, in its ritual activities, to bind people together and give a sense of overview. But we can do that and discover ethics and our sense of place and being without intervening gods.

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