Sunday 14 December 2008

Trying to Find Authenticity

Anyone reading the more reflective pieces I have offered here (as opposed to religious news commentaries) will have realised that I was inhabiting a position that was in of itself unsustainable as a quite disciplined, attending, communicating, Anglican. I treat all this very seriously, and the sense of internal inconsistency has been growing for some time.

My history and background in this is no secret, that I have always been on the edge of the Christian institutional world, and I have come in and fallen out on a number of occasions, and been blighted by considerations of ministry - the notion of taking commitment to its fullest and of developing a serving, pastoral, intellectual seat. I was confirmed in 1984 and almost immediately took part in the Fellowship of Vocation in the East Riding of Yorkshire (in those days there was less emphasis on younger people going into ministry). From a year or so on I had rejected the appeal of Unitarians, but with a collapse of liberal-realist belief I went across, rejected myself and eventually trained for the ministry, lasting just a year as I realised how little sympathy there was between traditional Unitarian chapels and me. It was eighteen months, 1992, after when religious observance began again, a very quick in and out of Sheffield Unitarianism, a commitment to Western Buddhist attendance and a developing relationship with a local parish church. Moving to New Holland in 1994, the old Unitarian church was revisited, to realise that I was the bad boy who'd let the side down years back at Unitarian College. As controversies half-emptied that church, I deliberately stayed marginal and I became little more than my mother's taxi driver. I was the last one to leave who was going to leave, and so when she confirmed leaving I did too (and Elena was hardly gripped either). I was, already, however, becoming more pro-symbolic and taking the view of a pathway, assisted by occasional attendance at an Anglican church in the next town to where I live.

It would be right to say that I launched into my full involvement there in 2006. Now I was wary of the ministry question again raising its head, but pursued it, let it drop, and pursued it again. It was going to be a regular conversation but the issue of the promises was raised, and I stopped it.

Now the idea was that having a fairly non-realist (or pushed to apophatic) approach to faith matters was a kind of foundation that would working the tradition on me develop. However, there was one of those remarks that made a difference: highlighting the difference between the person who takes a whole tradition and is critical on the one hand and that of the liberal who comes at each part critically on the other. Here was a crucial difference that reverberated from then on.

Then came a curate, who had given and continued to give these promises, and I realised that I could not in all honesty give such promises. I did see how I could, and I am sure some people do, but really I could not. Now it seems to me there should not be a lay-ministry divide. It should be a united entity. Nevertheless, if I couldn't symbolically handle such promises, then why symbolically handle the creed? Yes the Nicene Creed is a Church statement of faith, but the earlier Apostles' Creed is not.

I am not a creed literalist. I used to hate Unitarian sermons banging on about creeds, because they were like a mirror of literalism. It is all more complicated than this: it handles different forms of expression. Nevertheless, I had to use the analogy of taking a scroll out of a museum glass case, reading it as a reminder of historical origins, and shoving it back in again afterwards. You can still read it, but it's old and hardly relates to how to think.

All the time I have a well-rooted Eucharistic theology, which I had begun to build reflectively from late Unitarian times: my last occasional Unitarian service that I took (in 2002) was one experimental version (thus a lay-led Eucharist!). It was a pointer for me, that I took up from 2006. It has been grounded in social anthropology.

However, staying silent at the creed but going to the communion rail was inconsistent, and soon I was itching not to go forward. Here was a problem: I was attending quite a few services in a week, and part of that community (though pretty much everyone who might know does know my views). There are strong relationships there. So I decided I'd do nothing rash, nothing spur of the moment. The only argument in my mind was whether to wait until after the midnight communion for Christmas or stop now. Such was just overtaken by the decision to pause: do it now. That's another aspect of my theology: the urgency of the decision (for someone who delays and delays).

This week I just came to the view that I had to at least start a phase of not going forward, despite my theology. So this Sunday morning was different. Now the rash move would be to go forward. So when the preacher rose to give a sermon, I muttered to myself that it would take a miracle for me to rise and go to the communion rail afterwards.

His sermon was about being authentic: that in Advent to take the new road, to have the trust to leap off the diving board rather than again to do the walk back. So that decided it then. I was taking the authentic decision.

I shall probably continue with the same sort of spiritual practice, and see how it works. But really, for me, the Christian dots do not join up.

There are ethical arguments here too. For example, I've commented here on Conservative Evangelical positions, and they seem to be thoroughly unethical. From Akinola and Orombi to Sugden and Minns, the positions they spout make my flesh creep, to be honest. Then there is the kind of Fulcrum position, more reasonable as a beginning but it is just ending up somewhere near their game. Fulcrum people are bureaucratic apologists for the reprehensible. It also comes across as degrees of intellectual bankruptcy, and all about an internal dogfight over arguments lost in the wider world a long time ago.

Then there are various other strategies and positions, including those about which I have considerable sympathy, but they are all based on maintaining a frozen reasoning from the past, or at least some sort of appearance of such. Otherwise, we have practical and usual reasoning. I realise there is no contemporary developed path of religion, no easy vessel for building spirituality, but the intellectual division between liturgy and theology has become so wide it starts to lack a relationship. I don't like conserving strategies of living in bubbles, because the motive is to maintain the bubble. We should be able to see the bubble burst and have authentic religion.

These strategies and positions are more ethically sound, indeed an exemplarist approach to Jesus of Nazareth is intended to be ethical - but somehow none of the liturgical presentations deliver ethical wholeness or overcome the ethical disaster that is within an increasingly sectarian Christianity. My own position of arrival, though, is not principally an ethical one, but is an intellectual one. It doesn't work; it does not add up.

When people are identified as liberals, or misidentified as liberals, they usually have far more in the believing bank than me, and I'm afraid I have had another belief crunch. It is different from the rest, but it seems to be familiar too.

And that's it. Of course I can still reflect on the Christian tradition, and there is much inherited that challenges. It may be that a pattern of activity has to take precedence. But intellectually it strikes me as dead. The effort to blow life into it just overwhelms. Well, I'd stopped doing that some time ago, but it also stopped blowing life into me as delivered.

Maybe I'm not just a religious humanist, but this is how I am going to be for a short time at least, or perhaps it is how I have always been.


June Butler said...

Pluralist, FWIW, I believe that you're doing the right thing for now. One day, but not today, I will write of my radical vision for the future of Christianity, if it is to survive as a living faith, which I firmly believe it will do. It will look quite different from the dying institutions which we see today.

I'm a bit puzzled about your repeated ventures into and withdrawals from commitment to full ministry.

Erika Baker said...

So far you have defined yourself against traditional Christian thought. It sounds like you've taken a big step forward, and I can't wait for you to tell us in positive terms what a religious humanist is about.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

So am I, frankly, regarding ministry, but I kept scratching the itch.

Yes, I'll try to develop religious humanist thoughts - I actually dislike the term, but at the moment pluralist wouldn't give the sense of position.

Anonymous said...

P - I hesitate to intrude, for there is likely nothing I can say that will assist. But, I am a aldo highly educated person (MBA and JD before being a priest) and I struggled long and hard with all of the tough issues: virgin birth, resurrection, etc. I specifically rejected substituionary atonement and had to wrestle to come up with some reason for Jesus' horrible death. To me it all comes down to fear. We humans are fundamentally afraid - selfpreservation is bred into us. I think God did it this way to engender what we now call free will. I eventually concluded that if I believe in God, there is no reason to get too lathered up about miracles: the only one that I really believe in - and the only one that matters - is the resurrection. I take some from Von Balthazaar that Jesus came to know who he was (for me, after death) through obedience to the will of God. this obedience leads him to and through torture and death. In his obedience he truly is the New Humanity. In our obedience to God's will, we, too, will come to know who God dreams for us to be. More importantly, Jesus teaches us a) that we can trust God, and b) that we need not fear death. If we do not fear death we truly are redeemed from that slavery of fear. Over time, I believe, we can, through this loss of fear, become centered on others, and not on ourselves. Thus, the Great Commandment is crucial to me - and the only way God could set us free to love others was to demonstrate that we need not be so self-centered. Losing fear should lead to less sin, since fear is the root of all sin (self-centeredness). In that way, Jesus' death assists me to sin less and less and love others more and more - I don't see anything in his death that 'pays' or 'forgives' my sins. Only in this fearless love can all the human evils be cured. That's a very brief summary, and I suspect a good classical theologian could tear it up - but it is the ground of my being able to balance my intellect with my faith. blessings as you explore, friend.

June Butler said...

I'm wrestling with atonement theory, too. I'm trying to write something up, but it's tough going. Substitutionary atonement does not work for me. So far, I've arrived at a combination of Abelardian theory and Christus Rex, but it's not easy to articulate.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

I don't go with the last miracle: it has exactly the same difficulty as all the others. Why make an exception, other than to try and hold up the scheme?

Obviously my stance is one that doesn't even get to atonement issues. I long since ceased to worry any about that.

June Butler said...

Adrian, what (or who) is it that makes me feel rescued, saved, today, here and now, not for the hereafter? What (or who) is it that gives me hope and peace? According to you, illusions. Well, I'll keep them, thank you. I know that's not rational, and it's not meant to win you over to my way, but just to tell you my way. The answer for me is Jesus who is, indeed, alive.

As for atonement, whatever my theory, it does not change how I live my life. It's just something that I'd like to have a little clearer in my mind.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

Sure, I'm not suggesting that atonement is a central issue for you, just that I've not considered it - well, I have in as far as one gives service to others and there is a kind of transfer there. But that's what we all do.

Well, if we are going to say that these things are illusions (see my reply to Erika on the later thread above), then I'll happily proclaim such, we can have these as a legitimate part of Christianity, and all join in together again.

June Butler said...

As I said in one of my "Thought For The Day" posts:

Faith is not certainty so much as it is acting-as-if, in great hope.

Great hope is not quite the same as illusion.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

Faith is something to do with a combination of trust and hope-for-trust and hope it brings the greater.

June Butler said...

Sure. That's quite good, Adrian.