Tuesday 19 May 2009

Benjamin Jowett and Me

If anyone reads the presentation for the In Depth Group, they will notice two contrasting aspects that amount to the same thing. First, I restrain from too much of a personal viewpoint, so that the conclusion almost affirms that the Anglican Church is going to have a Christology-preserving general theological position, and therefore the open theologians of the later nineteenth century were asking too much. On the other hand, I don't talk like you would expect many a believer to talk, promoting a Christ devotional position as my normal style. You might expect some sort of affirmation about Christ and dying or resurrection etc., but frankly I leave these sorts of beliefs to others.

My own view is close to that of the open theologians of Essays and Reviews, and I have a soft spot for Benjamin Jowett and Henry Bristow Wilson, but obviously not that of promoting a State Church on purely Erastian grounds. My argument is nearly with them about evidences: I think the problem with 'the evidences' is not (just) that they are unusual, unlikely or irregular but in the nature of the documentation. It is simply that the documentation is not eyewitness material but theological material that demonstrates as writing for the early Church according to what a messianic person would do and according to the collection of values and realities in the charismatic expectant communities. Push me and dead bodies do not live again, without exception, but the writing supports my view rather than the view that one did. Plus, that a body is said to have been resurrected then gives the problem of then what to do with the story, and thus the ascension until a later return, and yet somehow still with us, and it all gets rather confusing and wrapped up in itself. Personally I think the Ascension is one of the least interesting bits of the Christian calendar, another embarrassment in the list of miracles, and so it should be.

So like the authors of Essays and Reviews I'm likely to extract much of ethical and moral value, but unlike them I cannot say that here lies the highest of ethics and certainly not that the Hebrew Bible points to the New Testament in terms of ever higher ethics. The Hebrew Bible is its own set of books and each stands as its own set of relationships within Judaism. Christians extract from and use it. As for the New Testament being ethical, well much is, but much may not be. Ethics decides what is ethical, not some series of events. It is important that a life lived is ethical, but we don't have any evidence of the stated life of sinlessness regarding Jesus either. That's a necessary point to make even while marvelling at his reverse ethics for the time and insight and compassion. In one sense, that will do, but it is not exclusive.

The point about practising spirituality, for me, is that of self and communal development, and to draw on the resources laid down by these people of another age in a context of contemplation and internal peace-making. It is a kind of Buddhist approach towards observance, and there are Christian parallels. I'm not into promoting some sort of non-objective Radical Orthodoxy either: that's just a game, a sort of Platonism without the heavens. I'm too selective for that. I think there is a possibility of theism, but unlikely, and it is rather just what we build in the spiritual practices we do.

I'm more postmodern than the Essays and Reviews authors. We don't have generalised, still 'objective', cultural sweeps, now, so we are bound to go grubbing among the traditions (but without false boundaries). I use religious literature (liturgical, scriptural) like some people use poetry, when I go grubbing around. A church is just a place where some people put on events, and you contribute towards them and use them.

If people don't actually believe something, but they mouth it because they are told to express it, you can usually tell. There are all sorts of different ways people can believe things, and I like to give benefit of the doubt. But when Benjamin Jowett referred to "terrorism" then I know what he means, and its the obligation to twist your thoughts to fit into the required receptacle. For that I would be a counter-terrorist, except I am respectful of other peoples' beliefs. Plus they are more entitled to their supernatural and traditional beliefs in a place that promotes them than I am in not holding these beliefs: my protest against them is not a protest but is just personal non-participation. I do mouth words I dislike, but on some I draw a line: the creeds as a marker and, unfortunately, the participation in the Eucharist because, for all my social anthropological explanation of the ritual, it indicates my acceptance of core beliefs that I clearly do not share. I would participate where those beliefs are not assumed, and in any case I have a private couple of swigs from my own drinking bottle while most backs are turned and queue up.

I would have joined most of the Essays and Reviews authors in at least seeking ordination, but it requires honesty, and not duplicity. I think ordination encourages duplicity. Anyway, started in 1984/5, that has finally died: promises promises.

There are three broad stances regarding Christianity, that in it there is a kerygma, a kernel or a cultural construction. The kerygma is that self-sufficient, self-justifying reception of the revelation of God in Christ which only needs to be expressed. It is active and dynamic and leads on to all other activities. Then there is a kernel, which is something hidden, mysterious, not obvious behind all the words and actions, which might be an ethical core, or theism, or just some sort of Gaia - an objective truth at the deepest point. Then there is the cultural construction, that no matter how deep you go it is still all made up and still human: there are symmetries and beauties and the like, we say, but may be that is because at the heart of these shapes is a simple mathematical heart and we find that satisfying, but isn't actually satisfying beyond our biology and evolved connections (the body) and our culture. This third view, the construction one, is my view.

I like Unitarian James Martineau and his Anglican friends. I take the view that his sheer subjectivity introduced into objective theism was tipping the whole thing over into a postmodernism. He didn't see it, but that oneness has reached its end as it would fall into groups and individuals to make up their own minds and build their own castles. No one could be a James Martineau today, but consistently such a person would be within the open postmodern. There might still be a kernel of it all, somewhere, but equally that might be impossible to say.

The people of James Martineau's day thought Christianity was in a crisis, and yet 1913 became the best year for church and chapel attendance. If these folks looked at our churches now they would think the religion was finished, just a few remaining people here and there, like something that does not quite give itself up. A longer street's worth of people in a town isn't actually very good, nor some roads in a city. They would look at the few suburban busier places with their expressed beliefs and wonder about the continuation of sects. They would listen in to clergy talking about tribes and drawbridges (as at the recent Fulcrum day conference - I listened to these, and it's like they have no idea) and see what is, in all effect, infighting within a dying institution and an argument of no interest to anyone else. Now there are all sorts of reasons for this chronic decline, but one is the intellectual absence involved, as well as the loss of spiritual method that seems to have shrunk now to some rites of passage. Some of this Fresh Expressions stuff comes across as pretty desperate and very late in the day, but you never know. I don't think it will make much impact unless there is some matching up with ordinary, practical, this worldly thought.

Like the authors of Essays and Reviews, I'd suggest scrapping all promises and having forms of spirituality that remove barriers and clearly more and wider forms of intellectual expression without expectations of one over the other. But I don't think we will ever have other than interested groups that come together, on whatever basis. And in the end, a change in my religious association just depends on where I will live next. It may still be the forms of Anglican liturgy in an undemanding church, or it could be Unitarianism again in a more progressive church (or one where I express my material), Society of Friends, or in a Western or simpler Buddhist group, possibly heterodox Baha'is if they ever come to exist in enough numbers, or even in visits around different places (progressive Jews, Sikhs, some Hindus, Jains) for insights into means towards enlightenment. The world has changed since the authors of Essays and Reviews, but they were more or less on the right lines.

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