One of my stranger journeys by car some years ago was to travel from Unitarian College to Matlock and visit Rachel Marszalek, before she and family discovered their move to London. It was like going from the most liberal to, well not quite the most evangelical.
I first knew of her through her appearances into the Internet in fashionable self-presentations, a sort of alternative to the dowdy reputation of female clergy. However, very quickly I was interested in her writing output, and what was a sort of a postmodern (conservative-type) theological writing that had an internal logic but seemed to have the seed of its own contradiction, its own destruction even.
It's of the 'internal logic of the Church' approach seen in George Lindbeck and ecumenical Protestantism, and constitutes 'mediums of interpretation' without privilege but from within some institutional and cultural set position. The Anglo-Catholic equivalent is Radical Orthodoxy, and another variant on both is Rowan Williams's narrative-detail theology.
I contend that these positions adopted are voluntary, that is one just chooses to be within a Church logic of performance, or this bubble of Platonic perfection or this one part of multicultural group-talk (Rowan Williams).
The other pole of this cultural freezing and wall-building is liberal postmodernism, of the kind of Don Cupitt and Lloyd Geering - that is sometimes called theological nihilism. That there are no objective anchors means that one may as well take from Buddhism as well as Christianity, or from humanism especially.
Now, Rachel, as an ex-English teacher might, had a very strong style of writing that is economical and dry, but adds to the whole 'performance-literary' nature of her approach. Deriving her material from an evangelical resource, she had a built-in conflict with that source's own conflict: she is in favour of women's ordained ministry, including her own.
The problem is that she can draw this from feminism, and issues of liberal equality. But such would start a slippery slope towards a broader non-realism in her logic.
In any case, the very theology expressed was itself potentially its own gravedigger. There are no guarantees with performance theology of staying within any of its artificial boundaries.
One conflictual way of keeping boundaries is to experience a largely non-Anglican entertainment spirituality of the big neo-Pentecostal gathering. It is conflictual because the theology of cultural boundaries is opposed to the experiential-expressive. This is another road to liberalism, to the subjective 'I prefer' and it is indeed another internal conflict in Rachel's system, as she describes it. I suspect there is some magical thinking in this, and it is not pure experience for experience sake. In fact she has some aspects of being a medium, once asking me about the significance of a green garage door... Revelation and magic are rather close together, just as is the Catholic approach to eucharist even when they insist it is supernatural rather than magical (reference here to Liberal Catholicism in the Theosophical mode that is magic at the altar, and Catholicism in the general mode that claims the supernatural at the altar: in the first the 'man' is the key to the repeated performance and in the second the 'man' is the communicative means of the performance that relates back to the apparent Christ event).
As Rachel encountered me and others - like those sympathetic to full female ministry - she realised the ideological dangers chose to dig herself into the more pure evangelical theology. After all, she knows it is one snake on the Snakes and Ladders board that can take her all the way from her position to outright humanist Unitarianism. She can throw one number to avoid it and another number to go on the slide. Other numbers have shorter snakes. Of course I am happy to oblige because from my side the snakes are ladders.
She associated herself with the likes of John Richardson, the Ugley Vicar, the one-time next door neighbour of Unitarian minister turned Anglican vicar... Richardson is opposed to women in ordained authority over men; Rachel therefore is forced to go into some convoluted biblical theology to justify women's headship - forced as well to accept that Paul wrote Timothy and Titus, which any reasonable liberal and not-so-liberal scholar will dismiss as the work of some later traditionalist.
Now I know where this next goes. She'll say she is digging into a resource with its own form of objectivity, its own deep well - this is also the Rowan Williams approach. Except, of course, Rowan Williams as a speak of many different languages can also give a resourced lecture on the Bhagavad Gita and the Qu'ran; he can talk about Sharia Law as an additional law for another community. Evangelicals keep the blinkers on, in contrast.
Yet behind this approach is still the cultural choice, the apparent absence of wider objectivity and she says, "I'm not daft," and, "You're not daft," when it comes to wider scientific and social scientific findings about the natural of reality and her choice to use the logic of the church.
She further is saying that there is no neutrality, so I pick my humanism as she picks her Christianity, and Christianity led to humanism anyway.
Here is the exchange via Facebook that led to this blog entry:
Rachel Marszalek But it's *church* making decisions regarding Bishops, hence your bringing a secular world view to bear is simply that- bringing a secular world view to bear. I understand that world view, I'm not daft, the church makes it's decisions within another set of parameters, you know that, you're not daft either.
Adrian Worsfold I knew you'd say that, but there is a price that follows - the price of divorce from the world and sectarianism. Divorce and the turn into your own private world. You are not daft, but the price again is to be daft in order to follow a logic that has no bearing outside. And that is unacceptable to me. Theology wanders off into its own world.
Rachel Marszalek All world views are constructs including the secular one, you know that - the great thing is we are given a choice regarding which becomes the one in which we live and move and have our being - the Christian one has, of course, been the shaper of the secular one you think you neutrally inhabit - you don't.
Adrian Worsfold No no. This is the postmodern get-out that won't do. There is a hierarchy of knowledge, starting with maths as form and physics as object. This is important because one requires discipline and is realised in the physics of experiment. Chemistry builds on that physics, and then biology. Social science also uses experiment but has more handling of the subjective - the validity argument as opposed to regularity. Then we get to the arts and the problem of 'what is a good painting' just as is the problem of 'what is a correct religious belief'. As you can tell, I understand but no longer go along with the postmodern view, liberal or conservative. Once you expose the unhinged radical orthodox view, it has to apply to the liberal view. Just why does the religious liberal follow general narratives of meaning today? Is it because it is today's running fiction, a sort of ongoing working meaning, or because it might actually deliver results. These results (that can land a craft on a comet) are real and objective and often defy one's own wishes. So there is not an issue here of neutrality, but one narrative that is towards the correct and one that is part of a replaced world view. In the evangelical logic, many wheels go round but nothing actually explains the cosmos as it exists.
Rachel Marszalek Why those of us who live by faith need explanation all the time - it is not that the one requires a dispensing with the other, it's just that there is that that can not be explained: revelation and the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit - these are perceived by faith and can not be studied under a microscope ....
Adrian Worsfold Now you are jumping around again. When the cultural argument breaks down, you hop across to the experiential. But (as we are indeed not daft) you know that this is at conflict with the cultural argument - the one that has its chosen boundaries of expression and for you is an institutional Church one. 'Perceived by faith' is a jump both to individualism and to a supreme objectivity (except you can't find that but via subjective experience). If this is your line, then it is nothing to do with non-neutralities, bur rather that I am wrong. And on this basis I will discuss maths, physics and all manner of naturalistic truths and pitch them against Christianity any day. It's a difference argument.
The blog entry by Rachel this responds to is here: http://hrht-revisingreform.blogspot.co.uk/2014/11/slippery-slopes-and-political-hills.html
I used to include the postmodern in my theology, but I was never entirely happy with it. I tried it regarding a Christian narrative while at Barton (2004-2010), but it underwent a kind of decay of parts and then large parts - a sort of theological dementia. I participated less and less, said less and less. The priest was sympathetic, he had his 'whole tradition' approach rather than me being a selective liberal chopping out the unethical. He too was postmodern, cultural, and added in a bit of the Anglo-Saxon for good measure. The high point was the bones eucharist in the other Barton church held by English heritage, in which the bishop allowed some prior to 1662 material as well as the Old English Lord's Prayer. Fantasy and Phantasm.
An interesting part of this was reading Don Cupitt and disagreeing. His book Jesus and Philosophy was a remarkable turn towards objective history and, I thought, bizarrely wrong - the notion that a sayings Jesus was more credible than the (very problematic) narrative Jesus of the gospels. It was apparently earlier and more primitive, it even brought the fifth Gospel into more credibility as containing earlier material. It was also a homage to the Jesus Seminar - historians doing history from the secondary sources of the Gospels. How odd for a non-realist to go this way! OK, he was soon back to the usual global non-realism, but then asserting a choice of general narratives rather than neither deriving from the narrowness of the Church as the premodern postmoderns of Radical Orthodoxy were doing nor inhabiting the magical worlds of the New Age. This raises a question. Why?
Why these narratives? Why the general humanist ones of science and technology as explanations? Might it be because they are true or truer?
Yes, the point about liberal religion is to make a faith that is consistent with contemporary narratives. To this extent, I'm with Cupitt, though for him to be with me he's had to stop presiding at Anglican services and even attending. He can be quiet in a Quaker gathering, and might (but doesn't) throw in some programmatic Buddhism.
I'm aware of Thomas Kuhn and paradigm shifts; I'm aware of explanations undergoing shifts of perspective as the falsifications move on. I'm aware of insights that get tested, first mathematically and then objectively.
But here is my stance now. What's wrong with Platonist Radical Orthodoxy calling sociology 'secular theology' is that sociology does research and that research produces answers we don't like as well as ones we do. Sociology is not some chosen alternative world view as credible as bubble Platonism. It actually is rooted in reality.The same is true with evangelical resource theology. It might delve into its own history, or the twists and turns of biblical content (I can do that for a touch of unitarianism - small u - and Arianism too). But in the end it is superseded. Its cosmic arguments are wrong: it tells us nothing about science, little about history as it lacks sound method, bad on ethics, destructive of social organising (gender, gays etc.)... It is mythological, so Jesus the end-time rabbi is turned into a subject of early Christian communities.
Just as the weather is a chaos that becomes a system, and is no longer prayed for like the ancients supposed, so is indeed much of our evolved reality: from simplicity to interactive complexity: where intelligence is late and not at the beginning. This applies to all equilibrium systems, from nature to economics. We have a mathematics with (real!) virtual numbers that produces complexity out of simplicity, and we have the beauty of simple equations that describe reality and are balanced.
Paul Dirac is a modern prophet more than equal to anyone within Christianity. He says an equation to describe reality ought to be simple and beautiful.
These are of form. They make real predictions and physics has turned them into objective pursuits. Chemistry has physics into mixture. Biology turns chemistry into evolving life - no God at the tiller. Social science analyses intelligent life - psychology being partly scientific but also partly an argument, economics using maths but arguing over human behaviour, sociology using regularity and small group validity, politics using arguments of organising for outcomes. History has rules of primary source evidence. Geography borrows from science and social science as well as surveying. The arts become oh so subjective - what is a good painting, what music is beautiful (but is it regular only?), and then of course there is theology - what you choose is up to you, or your group. It is as subjective as the arts.
Is there a power game involved here? Yes, there is. There is because one is saying, this is true - this involves truth methodology - and is set against older forms of mythological thinking.
Again, aware of the critiques of the philosophers of language, never the less language even as a rich filter of meaning, a distorter perhaps of some meaning, is not the be all and end all, forcing a view that all is within a dictionary. No it is not - language is a servant, and if language distorts then the answer is to know it (and we do) and to refine it. And that's my other argument against Don Cupitt. Just as when he tried to make (wrong in direction) positive claims about Jesus the soothsayer, so he is wrong (yes, wrong) to say we live within the dictionary, simply moving from one meaning to another.
That way we may as well be Radical Orthodox or Evangelical or New Age or anything you like. But it is not so, thanks to research, thanks to the maths and physics that can land a spacecraft on a moving comet.