Monday, 19 November 2007

Martineau and Me

The ongoing correspondence with Steve Griffin at Fulcrum shows a difficulty of getting across the idea that when someone is important for thought it does not necessarily imply agreement.

He wrote:
Thanks for giving some background on Martineau. Your last paragraph was complex, but let me see if I get your basic idea: you're advocating a group that takes this or that set of rites as the basis of a community that is defined, at some point at least, by a certain code of behaviour, but that is in principle prepared to stand that code on its head because the relevant signs may not mean anything. Since you affirm Martineau's idea that the Bible is one instance of a wider divine incarnation, and that the meaning of the liturgy is individual, I have to ask whether you take language seriously enough as a gift from God, as something that we have to be stewards of in the same way that we look after the world around us.
He is asking whether, given a shared view with Martineau that there is a universal incarnation, do I treat language as incarnated like everything else (presumably not a gift from God - or it all is).

But I don't share that view with Martineau (the illustration is a coloured version of that found at the Unitarian Historical Society). What is important is that Martineau developed both a universal Incarnation and a highly subjective view of religious authority. This he combined with a poetic and conserving view of liturgy said collectively. These are in such tension that they can go to a next step of the postmodern, and each qualify the other. There is no objective basis of understanding the objective universal Incarnation, only subjectivity, and yet in worship people continue to use collective words. This is a theology in transition.

Martineau published The Seat of Authority in Religion when he was 85, and it is some 700 pages long. He understood, as he states near the end, that Western religion became Jewish, Greek and German. Jesus was not and did not claim to be the Jewish Messiah (this being the result of biblical criticism that was in Germany at the time, and later achieved a kind of consensus - though Jesus may have claimed something that linked him to such a Messiah, or would be transformed into such a heavenly Son of Man as God brought in the transforming day). The relativity of Martineau is that Jesus is called The Prince of Saints whilst the universality of Martineau is to refer to Christ over the historical Jesus - echoing a later (and far too neat) division between the Christ of Faith and the Jesus of History. The Christian Gospel was a particular instance of something general (and yet in culture); this is the pure opposite of Karl Barth later on - another route via Hans Frei to a postmodern (postliberal) position. Martineau's worship was Christian but his ideas were moving on. He found, perhaps, transition while recommending Christianity to Victorian believers.

Culture is never general, and language is a negotiation in the particular culture (and even subculture). I do not believe, therefore, in a Universal Incarnation. I believe that we should try to understand other conceptual understandings, and deepen those we hold ourselves. We do this through conversation and gaining fluency over signs (signifiers). There was never a Jesus of history that was not theological, so the Jesus of history is a Jesus of faith, and a very strange individual he is as it is a number of thought worlds separate from out own. Cultural difference works through time as well as space, and we cannot travel backwards. There is a continuing community, but its frames of reference keep shifting.

Language means that we are not quite individuals and we work out our ethics and beliefs in conversation with others. So both objectivity and subjectivity have gone. Martineau represents for me a liberal Christian route of freedom into the postmodern that came after his time. Secondly he represents a way of identity, through liturgical signs - he knew that liturgy was a slower changing process than theology. My reasoning about how liturgy works is because it relates to the gift-exchange that uses symbolic tokens in different cultures.

Aha - says the structuralist, who is also a universalist: I am admitting that there is actually a universal structure of gift-exchange. Well, not actually, even if maybe, because each example varies so much that it may be misleading to consider it universal. For example, reciprocity in Hinduism and Buddhism is based on merit, whereas in Christianity it comes via mutuality in grace - the free gift that precedes all. It is like saying the family is universal, when we know that some tribes do not have families but collective raising of children with men visiting various women for sex and provisions. Yet everywhere raises children! So, for me, liturgy presents a kind of anthropology of moral reciprocity, which is delivered as a kind of artistic support for one's own personal and group moral and ethical development. Plus, just as our own lives are stories, so the stories in a broad tradition feeds our own complex sense of development as thinking and feeling people.

So this is my position - from Martineau's. Martineau's route to postmodernism is far more open and broad and is in contrast to Karl Barth's, which ends up as a narrow rules-bound dramatic performance (biblical reading of history-like content or dogma as expected performance) to demonstrate narrow identity.

In my view Anglicans can understand that liturgy and theology are not the same, being different in purpose, and that as theology has shifted so considerably the gift-exchange function of liturgy carries on whilst thinking develops on that and more broadly.

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