Thursday, 2 May 2013

My Argument Against Cambridge

Yes I am like a dog with a bone. I don't give it up until the point is made, as I have been at the Unitarian page in Facebook. The issue is Unitarian churches and having a collective identity, and how that identity is maintained.

I'm banging away about Cambridge Unitarian Church and its minister Andrew Brown, with his blog entries like this one before the church's AGM and an identifying statement that says: I'm a Unitarian and Free Christian minister of post-modern and post-liberal persuasion (the latter of which links to its Yale and Duke postliberal definition)

Here's my argument:

The ideal Unitarian church, I suggest, consistent with creedless individualism and non-discrimination, is one where various different beliefs exist within the congregation and the minister encourages their development. Inevitably these views cohere around existing religious packages, but not completely and necessarily, and these are liberal Christian, religious humanist, Eastern (Buddhist, Hindu reformist) and Pagan (home grown and reinvented magical earth religion). Two are, in general, close to rational dissent, and two are closer to romanticism (that has a non-rational element). Unitarianism as a tradition was divided into biblical and denominational Christian on the one hand, and romantic and critical broad Christian on the other: the Christian merged but out of the synthesis came a humanism that was narrow, militant and not very religious, and out of a humanist failure came a romanticism for religious symbols that was inevitably going to be more Pagan and more Eastern.

Inevitably there are places where a Unitarian chapel has a collective identity more one thing than many: in a town of evangelical churches the Unitarian one may provide the only liberal Christian one available. It is bound to pick up local refugees and work to that market.

But in a large city the Unitarian church can specialise because there are others that can also specialise. Where there is less choice, the church should be more open to difference.

My objection regarding Cambridge Unitarian Church and its minister Andrew Brown is not the speciality, as such, but the means of maintaining it.

There are two Western religion routes to postmodernism. One is Martineau's, where subjectivity is individualist but he tries to retain an objective liturgical approach (even unwritten). That objectivity collapses into the subjective, and the language of faith is going to be a kind of Western narrative (evolution, science, cosmology) with individualist faith elements. It is the kind of approach Don Cupitt has made over the decades. It is the sort of questioning, open, even self-gazing type of faith.

The other route is the Karl Barth virtually invisible God of revelation, about which Hans Frei said the biblical narrative is what counts for the encounter. That was actually Bultmann's position: the biblical text as dynamic. There is no objectivity in this world to back it up: you can't do it via history, not via science. It is pure drama. This way, via Bonhoeffer, lies secular theology, the unquestioning (because we are busy, urban people) activity that reveals (or doesn't) the revealing God. George Lindbeck did this for a Protestant ecumenical Church (while he was nodding at Vatican II): that again there is no objectivity in the beliefs, no proof, no relation to the world. The ecumenical creeds define the Church as a standard of role performance, and as identity. Christianity is like a 'grammar' of identity spoken by a people of a commitment to that grammar (Stankley Hauerwas).

Similarly is Radical Orthodoxy, the bubble in the space offered by postmodernity of an alternative reality, that is Platonic and offers the perfect Church, the perfect moral system, and which regards sociology as nothing but secular theology. In the postmodern world, theology rises again. Except it doesn't, of course, as it lacks access to research.

Now, Unitarianism can be fully postmodern but surely via the liberal route. If it has postliberalism, it is indeed liberal and postliberal - it shows where it has come from. It can also say religions are like languages, and that we cannot find a neutral higher point. It stops Hegel. It disagrees with a John Hick who proposes a 'real' above the dharma, the Trinity, the Brahman. There is nothing beyond the plural. But it is individuals who necessarily have the parts: the Church whole is Baudrillard in its imagary, its surfaceness and so on.

My own position is a soft-postmodern one, in that research brings back results we do not like, and anchor us to a real world. The Western narratives are powerful not just because they work, but because they deliver research findings. All that was said about paradigms and paradigm shifts still is so. So, for me, a huge amount is about language and form, and religion is the most like art, but there is research. There is no equality between Radical Orthodoxy, which is made up, and Sociology, because Sociology has techniques of research. There is no value in freezing culture, which is what Lindbeck does, and creating sectarianism, where the Church and its definition gets further and further from the main narratives of explanation.

Andrew Brown is a minister who claims to be an atheist, so his God is non-objective. But he demands a Christian identity to the Cambridge Unitarian Church and does it on the basis of Lindbeck type reasoning. In actuality he combines this Yale conserving postliberalism with Greek philosophy, but then Christianity does that anyway.

So one can imagine a congregation as creedless being a place for romantics and Pagans and Easterns and humanists, and oh all that is welcomed so long as the church retains its standard of role performance, that Christian identity. It's like everyone can sit in the passenger seat so long as the Christian - and a non-objective one at that - keeps his hands on the wheel and foot on the accelerator. And this, one can say, is not Unitarian. Here we have a city, Cambridge, in which we have had Cupitt, in which there is theology of every kind, or which there are latitudinarians of course (from ancient days!) and the one place that could be multi-faith and plural is 'captured' on a conserving Christian principle - and not even liberal, except by position ('liberal about'). One of our one-time Hull attenders went home to St Neots and her nearest Unitarian church would be Cambridge. There were bus services, etc., but she would not want to hear the Christian bellyaching that takes place there about maintaining the creed when the God is gone into oblivion. Free up a bit; move on!

For me, a Christian is someone who identifies with the community of the first Christians and its forming beliefs around Jesus Christ. You don't have to do it by history, or by miracles, or time-leap social anthropology into a world we cannot recover in terms of beliefs and outlook. In essence, it is a cult of an individual. You need reasons to hold to a doctrine that Jesus Christ is unique, and one of the worst is a 'standard of role performance'. It is the last stage of identifying before the game is up. The Emperor has no clothes. It is a conservatism for the sake of it, and it denies precisely what Unitarianism has to offer: an open forum, a space and place of change, and place where disagreement and yet discussion does not prevent worship together and mutual support in the religious quest.

Oh and we do now think that John Wesley not Francis David said "We do not need to think alike to love alike" and indeed he was quite objective in his methodical high and then evangelical Arminian-style Christianity.


Anonymous said...

"One of our one-time Hull attenders went home to St Neots and her nearest Unitarian church would be Cambridge. There were bus services, etc., but she would not want to hear the Christian bellyaching that takes place there about maintaining the creed when the God is gone into oblivion"

I know the feeling being just outside the catchment area.

This is a good argument about their situation. Don't forget 6 years ago he was talking about entryism and actively persuading people to move on if they didn't meet the requirements about belief to stay with this church.

(Unitarian = creedless/open/tolerant etc??!!)

But for me it's the comparison with the Pinot grape - how they are so special and rare.

Perhaps the reality is better than how it can sometimes read in a blog post, but I doubt it.

There is something just so smug (??)in it all.

Glad I was able to go somewhere nearer (just) !

Anonymous said...

Basically just another post defining who is in and who it out under the false mantra of inclusivity.