Monday 28 April 2008

Sugden's Incoherent Lecture

The lecture called Evangelism in Western Post-Modern Secular Culture by Chris Sugden to the Anglican Network in Canada, Vancouver on 26/4/2008 puzzles me for the extent of its incoherence.

At the start I cannot understand why it begins with the account of a call centre that ends finally with a consultant who knows less than the caller and why this should be explained as a function of modern western secularity.

Then he goes straight on to being integrated about evangelism and more internal concerns: secure our organisation, our borders and our future so that we may continue to reach out to win others for Christ.

Securing borders sounds like something The Episcopal Church and Anglican Church of Canada have to do in the face of the attacks by CANA, AMiA and the Anglican Network in Canada.

Soon there are definitions of religion and secularisation. The definition of religion certainly does not cover Buddhism, with its reference to supernatural powers, nor does "impersonal powers possessed of moral purpose" describe Christianity. It just is not as simple as that. Secularisation is, he says, the freeing of any connection with God. Er, not when it came to Harvey Cox's The Secular City it wasn't, nor is the fusion of the sacred into the secular. Secularisation is as much a shifting of metaphors and a shifting of hierarchies of meaning (the sociology of knowledge) than something so secularist (much stronger) as being "freed from any connection with God". That his definition is inadequate is hinted within his own very next paragraph:

It is a process that tells us we live in a self sufficient immanent order - we do not need God to intervene for us. The focus of life, and of religion as part of life, is on finding fulfilment and authentic human experience. Doubts about religion are encouraged rather than addressed. Religion becomes one thing among others - not the thing that explains everything. Religion is a private matter. Religion is a continual quest for rather than a reception of and obedience to truth. Religious belief and behaviour are separated. Religion becomes a commodity, no longer a moral compass.

The last two sentences do not follow from the previous sentences. A quest does involve behaviour. What is different is the lack of sacred canopy, the lack of a specific religiously set mental authoritarian hierarchy. Religion can still be public as well as private, but it comes with other spaces and more choice. He says that in the secular world:

The focus of religion itself is no longer on truth, because there is none out there, but on experience and practice. The space allowed for religion. Religion is allowed to operate in a closely regulated space, a space where religion is not allowed to threaten the assumptions of secularity.

One wonders what is the agent of regulation here, what is allowed, other than a change in the sociology of knowledge. This approach can indeed be about creating truths through practice and experience, but practice and experience can also be about discovering truths. Really, these notes turned into a lecture are so rough and ready that they do not cover the territory and lack consistency.

He says that the Anglican Network in Canada challenges this placing of the Church, but the Church of England did not present a challenge on the day he calls, into the typical sinister Anglican Mainstream obsession and fashion, "Gay Wednesday". This was when General Synod of the Church of England debates addressed Gay and Lesbian Christians as full members of the Church and Civil Partnerships. He complains that the experience-led basis of gay people and their relationships was not challenged by any bishop, even though (he says) it challenges the teachings of the Church and of the Bible. Some bishops even affirmed such relationships and called for recognition and accommodation.

He thinks this is secularisation. Why is this secularisation? These are just relationships. He says people with gay relationships are prisoners of their genes, or their history, or of nature. Clever word is "prisoner": we are all made and constrained by our biology and by environment. Set against this, he says, is the biblical gospel of real moral choice, of responding to good and to evil.

The biblical gospel tells us that Jesus brought the kingdom of God, that the one through whom and for whom the universe was created burst through the bonds of death and brought a new creation to birth through the resurrection. The biblical gospel tells us that through faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus and by the power of his spirit, we can be changed. We can be conformed to the image of the one who is the true image of God. But this approach is costly. It is costly because it challenges the very heart of the secularity to which our culture is committed.

Well it is just another experience and another constraint; and this is not sufficient to alter deeply embedded biology and experience. Those who have revolutionary alterations to any kind of personal orientation are sometimes damaged, and they are rightly suspected, because there can be no thorough rejection of the past, only its building a biography of the self. The concepts of this religious faith, or any religion, cannot sweep away what has been built up. Of course he would say that this account is just secularity. It is called psychology: it is why we have secular disciplines, and psychology should inform the pastoral.

The whole approach then is oppositional. What does not fit Chris Sugden's account can be binned as secularity, just as the mechanism of change is internally revolutionary. In that it is strongly anti-evolutionary, it is highly unstable.

He thinks that secularisation separates belief and behaviour. There is mileage in this, because the plurality and complexity of modern societies is differentiation and specialisation. But then he jumps to adiophora, which he thinks came about as an Anglican method of separating out the trivial from the biblical essential, and as the Bible does not have the concept it should not apply within the Bible.

So we will look eagerly to see in experience what Chris Sugden disregards in the Bible, skips over, conveniently reinterprets and the like. Adiophora is one means of coping with biblical contradictions, and doctrinal and communal developments therein through mythic and real time. Clearly some evangelicals have need of the concept.

Then the lecture jumps to youth leaders and the Christian entertainment that leads to no transformation because it is experienced based. Back to the obsession again - that the incidence of evangelical young people living together without being married is no different from that in the general population, he complains.

Then it jumps to a calendar and shape of liturgy, as God gave to Moses, and liturgy teaches people the gospel. He thinks that the 'free' approach to worship in liturgy and songs in many evangelical Anglican Churches in England today is also experience based (I have no idea about the relevance at this point of him mentioning supervising a Ph.D about Burma).

Things then get interesting. We jump to Jesus preaching good news to the poor understood in physical categories of health and wealth disadvantage. Chris Sugden talks of the "possibility" of a truth that challenges the power of the powerful and the "possibility" that the ultimate power in the world was not Roman but the kingdom of God. Presumably he is into secular academic speak here: he surely means more than possibilities. Sadducee power was lost in legalisms, who did not want change in (?) the existing order. He quotes N. T. Wright positively, whom the GAFCON crowd increasingly dislike, in that those who believe in the resurrection are unstoppable because not even the threat of death deters them.

At this point I'm more than slightly lost in a tangential thicket, but the lecture comes back to saying that secularity only offers the poor goods which the rich value - and control: the kingdom of heaven and salvation through Jesus is reduced to the millennium development goals. Gosh, that's a leap into the present. The Roman Catholic Church calls such leaping "actualisation" - and it is to be avoided. What the hell has this to do with the Saduccees, none of whom were secularists, or anyone else at the time, I have no idea. The jumps of reasoning are astonishing and chaotic. He says then:

Our witness to a secular culture is that it is possible to recognise and receive God's revelation, in spite of our human limitations, in spite of the fall. Far from God being like an autistic child who struggles to make herself understood to us, God links his revelation to a text accessible to all which has been breathed by His Holy Spirit.

The Bible, he says, is transcendental in authority, not founded on or limited by human knowledge, "and therefore outside it".

Outside it? How did he arrive at that conclusion? There might be transcendental authority, but it was clearly also within human culture too. And then he says about God:
He exercises it [authority] of course through persons and institutions, the family and the church.

Which is a direct contradiction of the point he'd just made. Then he tackles a criticism often made:

Recognising the Bible as God's clear speech to us is not idolatry, because we do not become masters of the word. We are under the authority of the Word and expect it to confront us with new and even strange things. God does not reinforce our prejudices.

One is liable to choke at this point. Not only does it reinforce his prejudices, but its use (one text lined up with another remote text, each often out of context, with massive cultural assumptions, transfers and actualisations - as within this lecture) absolutely smacks of the legalism of the Sadduccees.

The Bible, he says, demands obedience and this aids its understanding. Then he moves to whether something is an understanding or a new revelation. Here there is a another muddle, starting with whether the Church is a message or has a message. There is a contrast there, and one might predict that people in the Church confuse between it being a message with it having a message. But then he says the Church cannot be a message, in that expressions of faith are so personal and diverse. Then, bizarrely, and continuing this point, he produces a Unitarian-pluralist view of the Church...

So the message of the church is that its own diversity, and ability to live with plurality and contradiction in its own membership on matters of faith is precisely its witness in a plural society.

I have never heard this expression for main Christian denominations and Churches! I have heard it for Unitarian Universalism and even then an argument within Unitarianism (no agreement even on diversity versus identity). I have made it: I have said the unique gospel Unitarians can offer society is that a diverse people within it can share worship and thus acts as a positive and hopeful microcosm of society. Most people within Christian denominations work within boundaries of doctrine and have a dialogue with theological discovery. Has he been reading what I write? He says:

This is the stance of those who over the last decades and longer have been unwilling to bind themselves to any confessional formulae, and only recognise that the 39 articles have a historical value in illuminating what we used to believe. Such a liberal stance held the upper hand by defining the space, setting the boundaries and providing legitimacy for all the sections of the church who lived in a creative tension with one another. But the tensions and contradictions have become impossible to maintain together.

Again, this simply is not so. Most even liberal Christians use and work with credal formulas (even if the Thirty-nine Articles were officially demoted). Liberal Christians do bind themselves, if critically, to the tradition. They are not Unitarian Universalists on a pluralist understanding!

He is creating hugely extreme opposites that simply are not the case. Then he creates the old one of a liberal establishment that gives legitimacy to limited Church beliefs and actions and that ANiC is not prepared to accept this. Well they obviously don't have such a bogeyman, as they have split apart! Instead:

It is to witness that God is the one we are all accountable to and that his claims cover all of life, our belief and our behaviour. It is to witness that he speaks clearly and authoritatively through his word, and supremely in the Lord Jesus, the word made flesh. It is to witness that the truth of God is accessible. That God has made enough of himself known to us to be able to respond to him and make truly moral choices of obedience and disobedience. This is critically important for evangelism among the poor...

Ah! So here we have it. Obedience and disobedience among the poor. Something that at once seemed to be liberation, now looks like the E. P. Thompson account of addressing the poor and having right behaviour. It is - in economic and social terms - not an account of liberation and revolution, but of behaviour, and restraint into some nebulous salvation. Well of course it would not be uch a fuller liberation - after all, such would be "secularity".

He links the Reformation and Anglican renewal today. They affirm that all are one people, across the boundaries of race and culture and economics, and tribe and tradition. Then oddly he says:

By claiming that all people were from one source, and all were saved in one new human being, even the Lord Jesus.

Sorry - even the Lord Jesus was from the one source, even the Lord Jesus was saved in one new human being? It does not even sound Arian. I'm lost.

He says that the Christian church was the first global community. That is historically not so: Buddhism came before it and was as regionally expansive as Christianity, and later as global. He said you go for the frontiers, as Jesus did. The:

people of the land where he started, robbed of their Jewish identity as the people of God by those who insisted on over rigorous application of the law: those regarded as outside of God's concern because they failed to live by these practices by reason of their gender or their race or their trade.

Robbed of their Jewish identity? What is he on about? And as for those regarded outside God's concern, could we not do some actualisation of our own and add for today sexual orientation minorities, those robbed of their identity because of biblical selective literalist legalism?

The frontiers then come to mean not geography but people of different roles and characteristics, as those that Jesus challenged. So now it is about finding those points in our society where people are affirmed or challenged by the gospel. The neighbourhood would be supported rather than tribalism.

So then we have a Michael Nazir Ali point: that there are no-go areas in Britain. (Did he write this on the back of a postcard with points he must "get in"?). Then he mentions new mothers and children and goes on to teenagers as frontiers.

The truth of God can be known, he says, as the gateway to fulfilling and fruitful life as men and women in marriage or celibacy (they really are obsessed); and that obedience and witness to that truth cannot be confined to the space or the form that is offered by the powerful.

I am still looking for these powerful. It is like some international conspiracy against religion.

Chris Sugden's lecture is a complete mess. It jumps around incoherently. He makes leaps of situation, culture, time and logic. He accuses others of stances they simply do not have. He creates opposites and there are no grey areas. He gets points in that seem to have no place. It continues with the sexual obsessions. It is all a kind of nonsense: a field of straw men, scarecrows of the far right evangelical imagination. This is New Puritanism.

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