Sunday 27 December 2009

Which is it: Bubble or Straight?

There was no Unitarian service this morning, so I went to the cut-down Anglican service (no choir, reduced turnout), and - as I think I'll settle - I sat at the gospel unlike others, the creed and the Eucharist (first part when people stand). This is because I won't now stand for a book, or the suggestion of a presence at the book, or say any creed, or stand at the Eucharist at which I also stay silent (again it's about presence). This still leaves me saying and singing quite a few dogmatic things, though I actually do not say "Thanks be to God" after a Bible reading and my contribution after the intercessory prayers is "Merciful Father, Accept these prayers... Amen." It seems the last part of the service I'll be able to say is, "And also with you," because I am always prepared to reciprocate any greeting, and that's an open reply.

The presentation of the service, as is readable from many a sermon, is that all this can be of a story; the Christmas Eve sermon pointed out the incompatibility of Luke and Matthew gospels on the birth narratives. It said, "the Christian faith claims" that it's not a case of God saying "I know how you feel" but that God was there, for example even in the mundane matter of Jesus learning to be a carpenter with all the splinters, boredom, thrown away mistakes and the rest, through the highs and lows of the building trade.

There is, then, always this sleight of hand. The sermon said, "Wherever you are along the story to history pole..." (if I remember quite correctly).

To me, it can indeed be a story. We don't even know Jesus's trade. The translation suggests he could have been a scholar, but he may have been a builder. The birth narratives are simply not historical, but then neither are the trial and resurrection narratives except the most likely bit that he was killed by the authorities. Nor do we know that much about the mission: it looks more like a year in length rather than three, snuffed out quickly by the authorities. All we have are transmitted sayings, and a supernatural culture and various expectations of a downtrodden people with scriptures of a mythical tribal past.

Yet a quip was made today about the new Unitarian hymn book I took along, that I'd mentioned before, Sing Your Faith, that 'it would be quick' - with apology - and yet it is a book I think is rather good.

The idea is put that the Christian faith is rich and dense and fruitful, whereas something like Sing Your Faith represents something thin and humanistic, slim and gone in a flash, rather like Hymns for Living has been seen.

But, in the end, something that is based on a story, or on texts, that represents a way of thinking we don't normally use in every day life, is nothing more than a postmodern bubble of premodern thought forms. The epitome of this is John Milbank telling us what the Church should be if it could be, on a conserving Anglo-Catholic model. The Church is right: everything else is wrong (even all that research!). The problem with bubbles is that they burst: there is nothing there or only scraps - bits of water and foam.

If I present myself to others with lots of Christian talk then I am serving a deception. I'm telling someone I believe and think in a way that actually I don't. This needs to be examined, so that this is not unfair. For example, I might absorb myself in layers and layers of the stuff, but it doesn't change the fact that the talk is a deception and isn't otherwise used for explanations. Of course I might be paid to do it and become even more surrounded by this day after day, but in the end I'd want to see that being the entirety of my reasoning method. The only people who achieve this are utter sectarians, whether conversionist or defensive, or hard-core traditionalists, and even they are suspect. Look at the creationists on Genesis-Revelation TV: the subtext is their own knowing that they are talking rubbish, the only response to be to dive in further into the nonsense. No wonder Ultra-Orthodox Jews try to recreate the Middle Ages around themselves, given to be a time when faith was fully supported. You can indeed do that: like that TV series of decades ago called Living in the Past when the post-university folk went into a recreated iron age village for a year and had a producer with heavy cameras come in regularly and wonder if anyone would get their remaining kit off in summer to sex up the programme and did communal living lead to any naughty bits. Even they didn't quite manage to live within the times, and indeed one couple left because their child was too poorly (by my memory).

I'd far rather sing from a hymn book that represents how I think on a normal basis, given a bit of elasticity regarding transcendence and some enchantment. After all, life is crap and we might hope for something better. Call it, then, straight talk: what I say is what I believe, mostly. If I tell a story, I'll say so. Your own theology and the liturgy used do not have to be the same - even Martineau had his liturgy trailing behind his theology - but they ought to be related strongly. What I believe of course changes, but it ought to be consistent with the grand narratives we understand today, and which are reliable and researched.


Murdoch Matthew said...


You express much of what I've come to. One cannot believe the old story on its own terms. It's used to express a good will that we haven't learned to frame in another way.

I notice that you're not attracting much comment lately, either here or at the Café. Perhaps that's because you leave little more to be said. I just want you to know that I read what you write, and appreciate it. Thank you.

Naomi said...

If the Anglican service is so distressing to your ease of spirit, why do you go to it? Why not walk in a wood or sit by a stream, or marvel at the unexpected beauty of the estuary landscape instead? Wonderful nourishment for the soul.

Oh, and Happy New Year, Adrian.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

Both comments welcome and with much agreement (total with Murdoch). I suppose I look for what is left, what remains, in terms of the Anglican. All the bubble does in the end is restrict, so it might be more possible to expand from a different base.

Episcopal Café is a very difficult place to leave comments. Every attempt I have made has failed and I stopped. I just send my pieces to the boss. These are becoming political now and with a sense of tying up loose ends. He wants Anglican relevant pieces, but knows I could dry up.

Funnily enough, on Fulcrum I say precisely as I wish and carry on (until they chuck me off - perhaps the difference is easier to handle, and the increasingly unethical nature of much evangelicalism can be challenged). Occasionally I comment on Thinking Anglicans but it gets harder to make faith based comments among those that baffle me more.

Erika Baker said...


It's often not constructive to comment here, because people with faith in God, are just seeing things from a completely different perspective. Adrian's views are erudite, theologically sound and well written, but to me, at least, they consistenly miss the point.

If you do not believe in a God as an external force, then you will naturally come to all the conclusions Adrian is coming to.

If you do believe in a God as an external force, then you can merely conclude that of course the stories aren't to be taken literally. So what?

I can only comment on that so many times before I simply have to agree that I will forever talk cross purposes because Adrian is focused on something altogether different to what my faith is focused on.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

Problem is, we never get to see what difference this 'external force' makes that can be communicated beyond examining these stories that seem to be ahistorical - which is a bizarre outcome for an external force. The external force seems incapable of arranging anything simple.

But I'm not necessarily discussing Erika's form of faith here, but the postmodern one where God is not necessarily an external force but where the belief package is preserved as a 'standard of performance' or 'means of identity' or the 'preservation of rich content' - not some active theism (which is also compatible with a Unitarian position, of course, but identified with Judeo-Christian 'intervention' - though I and others never see it and whose believers never seem to get out of the fog).

Erika Baker said...

Ah, I'm with you on belief packages!

As for the rest - you will only ever see the difference in people's lives. An external force that acts through and within people cannot be observed, after all.
All you can really do is ask people how faith has transformed their lives and what it has allowed them to become that they believe they would not otherwise have become.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

But other people change too, and become different, and can do so after reading a book, seeing a film, going to look at art. Something that is made to be unique, outside of experience, isn't. It is only claimed to be so.

Erika Baker said...

Well, we could now start a whole conversation about whether God is only active in your life if you know it... there's this "by their fruits".... but that would go too far.

If you look for something approaching evidence you have to start with reality and that is that there IS not historic and visible evidence. And yet, there just as clearly IS something that has captivated people for 2 millennia and has given deep meaning to their lives, has turned selfish whimps into martyrs for their faith, has changed and is still changing ordinary people's lives.

So you would need to shift your focus of research away from the historical factual and towards lots and lots of conversations with people of faith. "What brought you there", "what difference does it make to your life", "How can you be so sure it's not just something you would have become anyway", "why are you so sure it's an external force"....

You may not be convinced by individual stories, but maybe a whole string of them could bring out something approaching a pattern, some commonality that begins to allow at least the possibility of faith.

It's all ever only in relationships - after all, isn't the whole point of the concept of the trinity about relationships not about physics? Isn't the idea of the incarnation ultimately nothing more than the thought that God is in relationship with us, restricting himself to be like us, not about a superhero charging down to leave inctontrovertible proof that he's the boss?

So I guess that it's in relationships you have to start looking for something approaching evidence.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

Au contraire - not the thought that God was with us, surely, but the claim that God was with us. That God was. All the thoughts in the world are of nothing. Otherwise it is sleight of hand again. I have beein in and heard of lots of relationships categorisable in all sorts of ways, so flexibly that here is evidence of nothing other than lots of ways to categorise relationships.

Erika Baker said...

Well, you keep insisting on evidence that can't be had. That you don't find it doesn't prove anything.
That you shut yourself off from the only possible way of approaching the possibility of God doesn't prove that that way is invalid, just that you're not willing to explore it as an option.

And so we're back at the same old point we always end up at.

Naturally, I cannot prove God. Just as naturally, you cannot disprove him.
It's only ever been about faith.

john said...

Interesting exchanges.

I make some (completely elementary) points.

(1) The Matthew and Luke birth narratives are fictional/fictitious. Few NT scholars deny this. It's important that (sensible) Christians acknowledge this and avoid basing sermons on (e.g) Mary's reaction to Gabriel, the response of the shepherds, or the alleged circumstances of Jesus' birth.

(2)The Christian claim for the Incarnation (or incarnation) doesn't depend on these birth narratives. So it's not 'sleight of hand' when preachers move from these narratives to talk of the Incarnation/incarnation.

(3) Erika sells the case for Christianity (or any form of theism) short when she appeals (seemingly) only to 'experience'.
Rather, such a case must be based on a COMBINATION of: (a) general arguments for the existence of something that may be called God (the Big Bang, consciousness, some sort of design which overrides the undoubted truth of evolution); (b) the historical claims of Christianity (you have to explain why Christianity - against all the odds - 'happened'); (c) 'experience' - 'it works'.

Incidentally, no translation opens the possibility that Jesus was a 'scholar': the debate is over the social/ecomomic range of the term 'tekton'.

Erika Baker said...

I'm not sure that you can't base sermons on Mary's reactions to Gabriel. After all, if the original authors were not writing a history, they nevertheless had serious intentions when they put their stories together in just the way they and their redactors did.
And once we have put the claim for historic accuracy to bed, we not only can but have to engage with what the stories as written are about.

As for selling Christianity short when I base it only on experience: it is very clear to me that Adrian is making a powerful case, as do atheists, as do agnostics, as do people who follow different faiths.

General arguments for the existence of God can, at best, open up your heart and mind to the possibility of God. His actual existence cannot be proven.

Whether Christianity "works" depends on whether you believe in it or not. Adrian clearly claims that there is nothing intrinsically Christian about the "fruits" in people's lives that I ascribe to the activity of the Christian God.

And so we're left with at first an intellectual possibility of God, then some kind of emotional experience that triggers personal faith.
Which culture you live in and which theology you immerse yourself in then largely determines which faith you follow.

Murdoch Matthew said...

"Something has captivated people for 2 millennia and has given deep meaning to their lives, has turned selfish whimps into martyrs for their faith, has changed and is still changing ordinary people's lives."

Yes, it's called story. Stories are powerful. Our sense of self is a story, a thread picked out of a myriad of random happenings. (Psychoanalysis basically is working with a professional editor to make a personal story more productive -- or bearable.)

There is indeed a mystical realm of spirits and magic -- it's language. We remember and understand experience only through language, but we are liable to confuse a language creation with physical experience. Dreams, fictions, experiences -- all are equal realities in our minds. But there are times when it's important to sort out the ones based on evidence and the ones that have only narrative reality.

Mystics who have pursued experience of God have tended to encounter The Void, the Dark Night of the Soul, the fact that what we know is that we Exist, and Existence is a great blank wall with many irregularities that our human minds insist on seeing as pictures, as we see the night sky with its random dots and connect them and tell stories about them.

There is nothing mere or trivial about story. It's the stuff of our lives. Tell stories, live by them. But distinguish the ones based on evidence. The faith expressed by Ms. Baker is heart-warming, but it's the sort of thing that trains people to believe without evidence. The right-wing exploits this trait to fill people's heads with stories that go against evidence.

Ms. Baker is correct that there's no way to choose between religious opinions (convictions, beliefs) because in that area, evidence is irrelevant. I like the idea of God as loving and inclusive, and oppose the idea of God judgmental and punitive. But both are opinions, both seek confirmation within ambiguous literary texts. William Temple wrote in 1914 that deep religious convictions could not be distinguished from sheer prejudice -- neither depend on evidence.

The trick is to keep the sense of beauty and mystery that informed the now arid theology of the Nicene church and find ways of realizing it in a world of fact and evidence. Jesus doesn't save (define save, and may not even inspire (his actual apocalyptic message was of its time), but we need the communities that have grown up in his wake. To continue them, we must rethink our myths. And understand the language we use to express them.

Gary Paul Gilbert said...

I read John Milbank and Radical Orthodoxy more as an attempt to have one's cake and eat it too. Radical Orthodoxy pays lip service to the postmodern view that people like to tell stories and different stories appeal to different groups. But they still privilege one story, their own, as if it were absolute Truth, some kind of knowledge which came down from above, transmitted by some authoritative priesthood.

A more postmodern approach would be to say that people may tell different stories as they work together for a world of justice and equality for all. Solidarity implies pluralism or respect for others.


Erika Baker said...

"Dreams, fictions, experiences -- all are equal realities in our minds. But there are times when it's important to sort out the ones based on evidence and the ones that have only narrative reality."

And then there is this completely non provable 4th dimension that some people appear to be able to sense while others can't.
And that's where the conversations keep getting stuck.

Because you say with absolute conviction and truth that it's all language, I say with equal absolute conviction that there is a completely different reality that transcends everything I've known before I came across it.
I cannot prove it, I can only tell you about it and about the difference it makes to my life.

I know you will be unable to understand it and that you will be tempted to dismiss it, or to categorise it as something else, because it is not accessible to you and does not fit into the cagetorisation systems you are familiar with.

That's the divide we have to live with.

I'm back in the picture gallery talking to a blind man about paintings he claims cannot be evidenced, or in a concert hall talking to a deaf man about music he insists you cannot prove - because to him, you actually can't.

Neither of us is wrong.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

You're a deaf person in a gallery with sound explanations coming through headphones looking at pictures that the hearing person cannot see because he is blind.

Or something like that, possibly.

Murdoch Matthew said...


I recognize that I may be god-blind, as some people (and dogs) are colour-blind. All my life, I've heard this confident talk about God, and God's will, and the leading of the Holy Spirit, and I've never felt any of it. I suspect that others are interpreting feelings they have in ways that I've not learned to. But they are so sure of this knowledge that they can't prove and are so eager to share.

When I read some books, I'm drawn in, I live in the world they create, and I feel like I've come out of another world when I put them down. That's the power of story. Language creates the world we feel like we're experiencing. I can't prove that your experience isn't caused by an external force, but I can observe that it can be adequately explained as an effect of language.

As for that external force, the concept of a loving, all-powerful God must face the problem of suffering and evil. Where was God in the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, in the Holocaust, in the Indonesian tsunami of 2004? Apparently, what happens, happens. Rain falls on the just and unjust alike. God is the god of the lamb and the tiger, of Marie Curie and the cancer cell. We are given existence, and as long as we exist, there are opportunities. Stories give shape to our experiences, they shape our expectations, but shit just happens.

Here's what I've learned. Things are as they are, whatever we think about them. If we change our minds, or find we've been wrong, nothing is lost. Things remain as they always were. Humankind has followed its feelings of specialness and privilege right up to the edge of overpopulation and depletions of the resources on which our civilization depends. It would have been nice if God had told us a little earlier to curb our appetites and attend to evidence.

Erika Baker said...

No, nothing as sarcastically complicated as that.
But if you walk around absolutely insisting that "it can't be because it can’t be", well, then it won't be for you.

You know, in my determinedly agnostic phase I could never become an atheist because I knew too many hugely intelligent people who, for some reason I could not comprehend, "got" this idea of God. I couldn't get it, and I wasn't particularly bothered about it, but I would not have felt comfortable with dismissing it - too many people I absolutely admired could not simply be dismissed as wrong.

It is really, actually, not very intellectually complicated.
It only becomes so if you impose your own criteria on something that simply does not happen to follow your criteria.
You can disallow or dismiss any others, but that doesn't automatically invalidate them.

A person who cannot see cannot comprehend the concept of pictures.
But for that person to insist, against the testimony of those who do see the pictures, that the pictures do not exist because they cannot exist because he cannot "get" them with his senses is... well, understandable, but not terribly convincing.

Gary Paul Gilbert said...

Erika, By admitting you can't prove God you seem to have lost the larger argument because, then, there is no difference between your unprovable God and an imaginary God or no God at all. Antony Flew made this point a long time ago about the parable of the imaginary gardener. R. M. Hare tried to get around it by arguing that religious statements are not statements but rather prescriptions about how to live one's life.

I tend to agree with Hare but there is still a loss of force when one admits that the language one is using is empty, makes no claims about the world around us but is a mere ethical gesture.

The other side doesn't have to prove there is nothing but only point out that some things that have the form of statements in fact state nothing.

"God loves us" does not preclude Holocausts, natural disasters, etc., so it is not a statement like "X loves Y and shows it by behaving a certain way. God's love is like an insurance policy that doesn't cover anything.

It seems more like a story or picture which is supposed to inspire people to behave a certain way but doesn't make any empirical claims.

If you say that God doesn't act but only influences people so they behave better, you can't prove that people who behave the way you consider to be better are indeed inspired by God. They may have been inspired by the poetry of the story or fiction alone. In any case, there is no evidence people behave better when guided by religious stories, but this claim I take not to be a claim but rather an expression of a prior commitment to a particular story.


Erika Baker said...


I agree with most of what you say.
Theodicy is, indeed, a huge problem for every Christian, and there have been many attempts at reconciling why shit happens with a loving God.
You may come to the personal conclusion that the amount of evil and natural desasters in the world mean that a loving God cannot exist, but that is already a religious question. If you don't believe in a God, evil and desasters are no longer a problem.

Their existence makes faith complicated but not impossible. They are not intrinsically proof against God.

And, yes, books can draw you in deeply, as can music, or art or extreme beauty, or whatever floats your boat.

Where I disagree with you is your statement that you can observe that my experience can be adequately explained as an effect of language.
As you have not had this experience, nor have spoken to me about the particulars of my experience, you have to concede that you are in no position to be able to assess what explanations may be adequate for it.

You can explain what you imagine the experience might be, but that's where it stops.

Now, for me, the fact that people were so sure and keen to share their experience always used to be an indication that there is, just possibly, something real that I'm not getting.

It certainly is something that transcends language, which is obvious to me when you look at all our clumsy attempts at using our myriads of languages to explain "it" and never being able to do it satisfactorily.

We only have our language to express it, and the language of music, of paintings, of love.
But think back to the last time you were truly, madly, deeply in love. You may have written love letters and love poems, but I'm absolutely sure you never felt they truly conveyed what you really were experiencing.

Erika Baker said...

"Erika, By admitting you can't prove God you seem to have lost the larger argument because, then, there is no difference between your unprovable God and an imaginary God or no God at all."

I'm not understanding this train of thought at all. Faith was never about proving God, and I don't think anyone reasonable has ever claimed scientific proof.

It's about the possibility of God, and once that is accepted, about the possibility of personal faith.

This is absolutely not about winning an argument.

Murdoch Matthew said...


There are a great many people, taught by tradition and authority, who feel that homosexuality is wrong (or at least icky), and turn out in great numbers to vote against marriage equality and any public recognition of the great love of my life, now entering its 27th year. They will not hear us when we speak of relationships, but insist it's all about sex, disgusting sex.

How is your privileging of your feelings and beliefs over evidence and even contrary evidence any different from their sense of being on the side of God and the angels? Yes, rationality has its own excesses, which are somewhat correctable. How to argue with someone who simply knows they are right?

For the rest, see Gary's comments before your last ones. I can put things no more clearly than he does.

Gary Paul Gilbert said...

Erika, If you are not arguing or advancing ideas, then why are we bothering?

Your possibility is indistinguishable from an impossibility of no God or simply an imaginary construct because you fail to give any criteria for withdrawing your claims, if they be claims. What would make you throw out your possibility rhetoric? How can you say Adrian gets things consistently wrong when you've admitted you have no criteria for what wrong would look like?

You seem to be using a rhetoric of persuasion to get someone to consider your religion reasonable. Once converted the person may be told that the point was merely to get someone to go to church and not to prove anything. Reminds me of C. S. Lewis and his failed attempt to present Christianity as reasonable.

My husband, Murdoch, and I see you as an intuitionist because you imply that a moral intuition is all that is needed for knowing that something is wrong. As a married same-sex couple, we feel very uncomfortable with this because your religion has discriminated against LGBTs and sexual minorities for centuries. The Episcopal Church in America has made more progress but still has a long way to go, while it has to answer the man in Canterbury from time to time.

My main objection is that you repeat the failed logic of negative theology, which says that God is unknowable. A mystic who advances that sort of idea must eventually admit that the statement itself is empty because no statement about ultimate reality could ever make sense, as A. J. Ayer said. It is not that the statement is false but that it is not even an attempt at advancing a picture of reality.

Adrian's nonrealism makes more sense with its emphasis on language as performance. It doesn't have to prove anything and risk losing the argument or offer empty proof. As Cupitt, Wittgenstein, R. M. Hare, and others have argued, the person who says "I believe in an all-loving God" expresses an attitude toward other people.

For me, religion at its best is about embodying justice and equality for all.


Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

My approach: "its emphasis on language as performance"

Yes, but be careful. As the service I'm presenting also states, there is need for clarity of communication. Many Anglicans use 'language as performance' in their narrative approach to theology, and that's fine until it becomes confusing as between history and story, because it sounds like history but they deny it at the same time.

The problem with my sermon for the 3rd is I just can't bung everything in. I've gone for a survey of my first impressions, and that is important in itself when you try to attract people, but as someone who came with a bagload of Anglican assumptions I want to show how a recent examination of Anglican liberalism has shown its consistent failure institutionally and that my own early assumptions lacked clarity.

I'm tried to prevent myself falling between two stools but the sermon probably achieves little more than indicating I am a version of Richard Nixon, with a lot that has been recorded.

Gary Paul Gilbert said...

Adrian, Maybe I am thinking in German. The two German words for history: Historie and Geschichte would clarify things. Historie is what can be reconstructed by a historian while Geschichte is more story or narrative as in literature.

The performative or expressive function of language does not exclude its descriptive one of representing a state of affairs. Propositional language does not disappear but is simply demarcated as not the only function for language.

That is how I read you.

I wouldn't expect that you can say everything in one sermon. The limitations of a sermon can lead to others.



Erika Baker said...

Gary and Murdoch

You ask why I'm arguing. That's funny, because I started this conversation trying to explain to Murdoch why there weren't many comments on this blog - because it is not possible to argue across the divide.

And so I'm not interested in advancing any ideas, I am not interested in persuading you. All I'm interested in is in getting you to accept that you cannot reduce my experience to something you comprehend, simply because that's the only way it makes sense to you. Especially when you don't even know yet what that experience is.

I'm not sure what any of this has to do with the lgbt question. I too am married to a woman and very active in Changing Attitude. We're absolutely on the same side of that debate.

But the lgbt debate is a completley different category. It's about people believing they know 100% what God wants, whereas we were talking about the mere possibility of God's existence and, if he did exist, how one might come to recognise that when, clearly, science is no help.

Happy New Year to you both!

Erika Baker said...

OK, I take the bait:-)

"My main objection is that you repeat the failed logic of negative theology, which says that God is unknowable. A mystic who advances that sort of idea must eventually admit that the statement itself is empty because no statement about ultimate reality could ever make sense, as A. J. Ayer said"

This comment only works if you determine experience as negative and invalid.

You see, to me, the conversation seems to be ending too soon.
At first we ask "can we prove God with science". After a while, we discover that we cannot.
Now you can stop there and say "that means there is no God". Which is the conclusion you, Murdoch and Adrian have come to.

But you could also say "ok, is there another question we could be asking".

That does not mean that, having asked another question, we don't still end up with the conclusion that God does not exist.
But it strikes me as very limiting not to ask the question and to dismiss the question others are asking out of hand.

If you artificially limit the parameters of your inquiry to what suits you, you will only ever get the answers that can arise out of a limited inquiry.

If you took the experience question seriously and explored it with an open heart and mind, and if you then came to the conclusion that it didn't work for you, you would at least have explored all the options instead of making up your mind too soon.

One thing is clear, you will never get an answer to a question you're not asking.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

How wonderful! This blog seems to attract the lesbian and gay and also the German intellect in equal measures. It must be its inclusive appeal to minorities and its rationality!

Gary Paul Gilbert said...

Erika, Is it your experience you want to speak about or an experience of the existence of a God? They can't be the same. Just because you have an experience doesn't prove anything. In German, the difference is that between Erlebnis or so-called lived experience and Erfahrung, an experience that is closer to the English "experiment." The French "expérience" is better here because it condenses both opposed notions, as in experience and experiment. Erfahrung is a radial openness which is prior to any subjective experience.

Adrian, I an not German but French Canadian American. Murdoch and I civilly married in Montreal four years ago. We have been together twenty-seven years.

I only hang out with German deconstructionists. "Hang out" is our friend Avital Ronell's rough translation of Heidegger's Mitsein (being-with).

Erika, I don't think we approach LGBT the same way because I see it simply as question of perspective. I write from a non-straight perspective and make no claims about knowing ultimate reality. To read the tradition from the margin is to pick up on how the tradition had to figure itself as central by constructing and excluding a margin.

Happy new year!


Erika Baker said...

I am German and I am a qualified German translator, so I do follow your argument.

But, actually, I'm speaking of neither at the moment.
What I am speaking of is categories of examining issues - any issues.
And what is important is not to limit your framework unnecessarily.

Where you allow Erfahrung, you only do so because it has a component of objectivity.
Whereas I am saying that objective veracity is simply one of the possible framework categories.
And it is obvious to me that it will only ever result in a "no" to God, because he just cannot be proved or shown by any objectively verifiable method.

And so I'm saying that we haven't yet found a way of communicating with each other because we have not yet defined our parameters.
I can talk to you about experience, Erfahrung, Erleben.... but only after we have determined whether we agree that these are valid categories.
Otherwise, it's like trying to have a conversation about same sex theology with biblical literal fundamentalists. They ignore all pro-gay theology because it does not fit their narrow framework of "show me where it says in the bible that homosexuality is ok".

I cannot engage with them on that level because it simply is too narrow a framework to have a meaningful conversation.
But if I try to expand their horizon and point to science, to psychology, to the hermeneutics of the last 150 years, and of course my own experience which is made up of erfahren and erleben, I am accused as a woolly liberal who ignores the obvious truth and wants to make religion say what pleases her.

There just is no talking across the divide.

We can have profitable conversations about experience and all its connotations, but not while you insist that it has to fit scientific parameters.
It just cannot be done.

And so I do think this conversation has come to an end and I'm back where I started - people don't comment much on this blog because you cannot speak across the divide of some people having narrower frameworks of reference and others wanting to draw on wider possibilities.

All the best

Gary Paul Gilbert said...

Dear Erika, How lovely you are a German translator, so you understand the distinction between Erlebnis and Erfahrung! Following Avital Ronell, I see Erfahrung as on the side of experimentation and ultimately failure. I track it not because it is more objective but because it is more unstable, a kind of traumatic wound which calls into question the binary subjective/objective. With Erfahrung there is no possibility of a nice synthesis or the certainty of understanding. One is never sure. It represents a shift from traditional hermeneutics, which assumes meaning, to reading, which has to confront messes and the possibility one may never understand. Avital locates Erfahrung on the side of a radical dumbfoundedness or stupidity. In psychoanalytic theory, it would be an originary trauma out of which arise ego boundaries. In a sense the ego, rather than defending itself against an outside force, is itself an effect of trauma. In French psychoanalysis, it is always already split.

One is never sure of having been understand, says Nietzsche. Samuel Beckett says, "Go on failing. Go on. Only next time, try to fail better." Our conversation, by failing to find a so-called common ground which we would share, may be succeeding in Georges Bataille's sense of communication as requiring an abyss between people.

You say we haven't defined our parameters, while I would question the necessity of drawing up parameters. What would get excluded in such a shared conversation? What would get repressed, forgotten and what would we exchange?

I neither affirm nor negate the notion of God. I use the word "God" as an action indicator for social justice.

Biblical literalists are not literalists because they fail to read the texts they cite.

If one must talk about productivity, of a conversation shedding light and meaning, maybe dropping metaphysical speculation and focusing on justice issues is a way. Liberation theology, for example, is more about looking at the world from the perspective of oppressed peoples and less about debating religious doctrines.

An end to a conversation may be a beginning in that it represents a difference that cannot be integrated into a position. One is baffled by the other. An ethics of respecting the infinite singularity of the other may be able to deal with this. Has the conversation ended or has it failed to start? The refusal to come to a shared common understanding may paradoxically be a more profound communication, one that refuses easy fusional unities and other repressions. I think a certain Judaism has no problem with this sort of messiness.



P.S., All this to say I think it is cool that I don't know if we have started or ended a conversation.

Erika Baker said...

You ask what would get forgotten, repressed or excluded in a conversation without shared parameters. It’s not so much about having the same individual parameters, but it is about a certain openness to the parameters of the other. If you have a completely closed mind and believe that only your approach has validity, then you lose a lot. Respect, for once. And accepting the intellectual integrity of the other. And most importantly, the ability to learn from each other. Because a set of parameters that says “I will only allow this framework, yours is invalid and will never convince me” means I have no way of talking to you effectively.

In practice, Adrian’s stance of “you cannot prove God, therefore he does not exist” is to me a huge non-sequitur, completely illogical and an intellectual stumbling block. But worse than that, because it completely sidesteps my own adventure with faith, he no longer has anything to say to me. I love his political analysis of the Anglican Communion, but when it comes to preaching, he only ever reduces faith to something comprehensible to him, which simply completely bypasses what a liberal faith is about for me. And so I have stopped reading his sermons or commenting on them, because we only ever end up at the same old “oh yes it can be true, oh no it isn’t.” We could only grow out of that if we shared the parameters in which a constructive conversation is possible.

It’s like you described your experience as a gay man. It just IS. You claim no absolute certainty about it.
Well, that’s my experience of faith. I KNOW it’s true as much as I know that I’m bisexual and married to a woman. I cannot prove it to anyone, I cannot claim that it has absolute truth. But I cannot effectively talk about it to someone who has an apriori closed mind about even the possibility of me being right with my experience. That's like talking to someone who believes he knows that I have chosen my sexuality and could change if I wanted to and who refuses to listen to the experience of my own life because he discounts experience as a valid criterion.

You say “With Erfahrung there is no possibility of a nice synthesis or the certainty of understanding. One is never sure.” And it sounds as though you believe that to be negative, as though it devalued Erfahrung. But that’s precisely what the Cloud of Unknowing is about. We can never be sure about what God is like, we cannot even be 100% certain that he exists. But we can treat our experience of him as a positive indicator and live accordingly and find that it helps us to grow. Giving up certainties is what faith is all about.

It’s a case of suck it and see. If it works, keep at it, if it doesn’t look for an alternative. It’s about faith not about knowing, it’s about living and growing and as you say, that includes ethics and justice.
I just don’t see the need to reduce it to ethics and justice.
Especially not when I know from my own life that expanding it to something else actually strengthens my ability to recognise and support ethics and justice.

Ultimately, it’s about either opening up or narrowing down. As long as opening up to wider possibilities helps me to grow, I cannot restrict myself to the narrowness of my own intellect.

Murdoch Matthew said...

“One thing that social psychology taught us over and over is that the mind is a wonderful sense-making device, that it takes ambiguous or confusing information and simplifies it according to rules of thumb,” said Aaron M. Sackett, a psychologist at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota. --NYTimes Science Section, 5 January 2010

God is a rule-of-thumb?

Gary Paul Gilbert said...

Dear Erika, You sound like a disgruntled customer of a restaurant whose chef has changed the menu, whereas Murdoch and I were attracted by Adrian's new menu. We didn't even know it is new.

I am attracted to the way Adrian seems both attracted and repulsed by Unitarianism. Like him, we find we need ritual/liturgy but don't want to be confined by the creeds. King's Chapel in Boston went through this at the end of the American Revolution, so we may be repeating a dance step that has already been tried. King's Chapel hired a lay reader to lead the daily office and gradually altered The Book of Common Prayer. When the first American Bishop, Samuel Seabury, returned from Scotland after his consecration, the congregation were expecting he would ordain their lay reader. But Seabury refused because the congregation would not abandon their Book of Common Prayer, according to the use of King's Chapel.

Today the congregation is associated with the Unitarian Universalist Association, a denomination which has Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, agnostic, atheist and other approaches. But King's Chapel remains loyal to its prayer book.

Google Books has an edition from 1850 which looks a lot like the Book of Common Prayer of 1662, its predecessor.

The link is's+Chapel+Prayer+Book&lr=&ei=QyJES4z9JZeGygSn8YDGBw&cd=1#v=onepage&q=&f=false


I think your paraphrase of Adrian's theology oversimplifies things. I don't see as concerned about the existence or nonexistence of God. I may be projecting my own concerns here. The building of a reign of justice and equality needn't require any belief in the existence or nonexistence of a God.

As for knowledge, I follow Wittgenstein, who said it makes no sense to say "I know what I want," but it does make sense to say that I know what someone else wants. I can weigh evidence in looking at someone else. But it really is grammatically absurd for me to question my own existence or desires.

Unitarian Universalism in the United States includes believers and nonbelievers. I remember reading a pamphlet years ago which had a photo of a bunch of people. It said something like, "You may have something in common with some of these people. Each path is unique." So in a sense the openness you call for has already been worked out, at least on paper.


Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

I really appreciate this link, Gary, and have downloaded the resource. It is most useful.

I am trying to build something up from several influences, and then put this into the Unitarian space. I suppose, in the end, I've just come to the view that the Anglican space won't have even a limited amount of innovation. All of the effective forces are going in the opposite direction. I keep trying to use a crowbar in places like the Fulcrum website, and occasionally Thinking Anglicans, but it is taking on the characteristic of unworthy sport and casual entertainment and not too productive.

Erika is, as far as I can see it, struggling in a the broader unwelcoming community, though probably has better relations locally (as I do), and is in the borderland. The issue only people themselves can answer is how productive is the borderland. I think it has become largely unproductive now; there's just not enough you can do positively. But you are right that Unitarianism is a frustrating place for different reasons: usually of untapped potential and, somehow, bad management, Puritan shadows and the dangers of congregationalist possession. It's like having to be furious with a bicycle pump to get something into it.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

Ah the influences of Samuel Clarke and Theophilus Lindsey, Arians of their day in London, of Essex Church (Clarke was of Exeter originally). I have taken the .PDF but also the text and joined it up.

Erika Baker said...

Borderland is deeply unattractive and you're right, the question is how long you can stay there.

But another question is what you take with you when you leave and where you go. If you start with a genuine faith, believe the church embodies it and then find that the church actually corrupts it, then you leave the church but you can still take your genuine core belief with you. You only have to give that up if it was never there in the first place, if you've only ever been involved with the peripheral. Intellectually, the only credible stance is the kind of agnosticism Gary lives with. Atheism is as much a faith as religious belief.

Gary, this particular post has not been too concerned with the existence of God, I accept. But Adrian and I have been discussing on his blog, on TA and privately for a long time, and that question is indeed what divides us.
It would not matter if we were discussing philosophy or legal systems or justice in an abstract way. But it does matter when the discussion takes place under the heading of theology.

Murdoch, we cannot escape the fact that we live in our own bodies with our own brains within the constraints of human experience.
And psychologists, too, see what they want to see. Just like anyone else.
But unless you claim that there IS no absolute reality at all, anywhere, you still have to make choices about what that absolute reality might be. There is as little evidence for your "there's nothing" stance as there is for my "there's something" belief.

You can analyse the electric and chemical impulses in the brain and conclude that love is nothing other than a crude biological function. Or you can look at your own life and conclude that the chemistry merely shows you HOW the phenomenon is being perceived by us.
The choice is yours. You narrow down or open up - it's entirely up to you.

Gary Paul Gilbert said...

Actually, this is Murdoch.

We live in our own bodies with our own brains within the constraints of human experience.
And psychologists, too, see what they want to see. Just like anyone else. But unless you claim that there IS no absolute reality at all, anywhere, you still have to make choices about what that absolute reality might be. There is as little evidence for your "there's nothing" stance as there is for my "there's something" belief. You can analyse the electric and chemical impulses in the brain and conclude that love is nothing other than a crude biological function. Or you can look at your own life and conclude that the chemistry merely shows you HOW the phenomenon is being perceived by us. The choice is yours. You narrow down or open up - it's entirely up to you.

"Just accept Jesus as your Personal Saviour and your life will be wonderful." Erika, you're really selling your own brand of salvation, aren't you? and we're poor stubborn, ignorant clods for not accepting it. No, when it comes to reality, the choice is not ours. We live within the constraints of what is. Whatever stories we tell about our experience, things are as they are.

I pursued your story for years. From age 6 to 20, I was an ardent Southern Baptist. From 23 to 45 or so, I was a keen Anglican. I was a layreader. I lived in a sort of commune that said the daily offices and Eucharist. We spread the word about the satisfactions of Catholic Christianity. I spent a month in a Benedictine monastery. I believed what all these devout people told me: that sexual orientation was a sort of habit that could be changed, or was so superficial it could be ignored. Marriage was the way to maturity and real life. So I married and had children. And it turned out that the choice was not mine to make. In its emphasis on the individual relation to God, the church had missed the reality of human relationships.

I was told that gay life was "narrowing down." But when my wife tired of being a life preserver to whom I was desperately clinging and went off on her own, I discovered the freedom, expansion, joy in the gay community that the church had only talked about. I met Gary and we fit together and have been happily together for 27 years. So I've experienced the love that you're touting outside your story of ultimate reality, actually, in contradiction to it.

Assuming an ultimate reality to which it is privy, the church has been wrong about just about everything that can be checked -- the shape of the earth, cause of disease, the time of the end (not in the era of Jesus or Paul), etc., etc. But you're sure your sense of comfort and satisfaction come from outside. No, we can't check it, but we should take your word for it because you're very very sure. Sorry. Been there, done that. Better now.

Incidentally, psychologists like the rest of us tend to see what they're looking for. But they do check their perceptions against evidence. They don't fill in the gaps with supernatural speculations. If reality doesn't include a human-style god, then we don't have to make any choices about that concept. We can just get on with life. It's possible that I'm god-blind like some are color-blind (cats can't see the color red). But humankind has a well-documented tendency to project individual feelings onto others, and to see patterns in random events. That seems explanation of my experience enough for me.

Gary Paul Gilbert said...

Erika, I am not an agnostic, nor a theist, nor an atheist. Unitarianism can include these approaches and many others as well. Borderlands may not be easy places to inhabit but they are very important because institutions want clean boundaries so they can keep their power. One may be a nontheist and still worship with the Book of Common Prayer.

What appeals to Murdoch and me in Adrian's website is that he is developing a nontheist approach to spirituality. For you to tell us you cannot do without theism is irrelevant. It would be like a Christian telling a Jew that all religions must recognize Jesus. Saying our approach is defective or deficient in any way is not helpful.


Erika Baker said...

""Just accept Jesus as your Personal Saviour and your life will be wonderful." Erika, you're really selling your own brand of salvation, aren't you? and we're poor stubborn, ignorant clods for not accepting it."

You really don't know me at all. And you're not reading properly either.

If you go through this thread again you will find that I have only ever said that IF there is a God, he clearly cannot be proven.
So IF there is a God, it may be possible to approach him through experiencing him.

You are not stubborn and ignorant for not believing in God, just as I am not stubborn and ignorant for doing so.

But I do not find it intellectually credible to discount there mere possibility of God because he does not fit our scientific methods. And don’t forget the many scientists, psychologists etc who do have faith. We all read the people we’re drawn to and find their arguments most convincing. And so I assume you’ll be influenced by existentialists and humanists, whereas I’m influenced by academics with a sense of the numinous. That both exist in the ranks of science and psychology just shows that science is unable to help answer our question. Unless science can positively disprove God, it has nothing convincing to say about the matter.

As for "Jesus my Saviour" Yuck, yuck, double yuck!!

But that's actually a different issue.
The first question is the possibility of God. The second is what that God might be like. There’s nothing axiomatic about him being anything like the Christian God. He could, in theory, be like the fundamentalist Muslims imagine him to be, or like the Jewish God, or be more closely represented by Buddhist ideas. Or he could be something well beyond our true understanding and embody a bit of the best of each of all faith traditions.

And there's nothing as odious as the people you describe, who claim to know exactly what God is like and who will squash you down, trample all over your humanity and integrity and try to squeeze you into their small boxes of certainty. And that goes for members of all religions.

But to me, that's not faith at all. That's the flip side of your certainty that there IS no God.

Certainty is the enemy of creative faith, of any genuine faith at all.
Certainty is a closed mind. It’s one that says “I know the answers, I don’t need to look any longer”. Whereas faith is largely hope. Certainty is Akionla, Faith is Archbishop Tutu.

As the saying goes - tell me about the God you don't believe in, chances are I don't believe in him either.
Well, I certainly don't believe in the monster your evangelical brethren have created for themselves. That’s a golden calf that’s

And if you're truly happy and fulfilled without a sense of God, then you're miles closer to what I believe him to be about, than any of those people.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

I take the view that Erika's faith stance is but a gnat's kneecap distance from mine, but she insists it makes all the difference as she arrives at this view from a different angle.

The "yuck yuck double yuck" is a surprise, even if it is a comment on the people who say it rather than the object about which it is said. I have always had the same sentiment too. It would be interesting to have a focus on Jesus (just while passing).

Gary Paul Gilbert said...

Murdoch again.

Erika, your insistence that we accept your metaphysical opinion concerning God struck me as exactly like the importunings of someone winning souls for Christ. I'm glad you don't go there, but I'm bemused by the passion with which you argue. You concede that proof of your outside force is impossible, and you observe that Adrian, Gary, and I seem close to what you believe God to be about, so what are we fighting about? One suspects that Bible thumpers of trying to convince themselves. Why must we agree with you? Things are as they are, whatever we believe.

But once again, if there is no outside force or influence, then we need have no opinion about it. Your belief that such exists means you have to account for it. We don't have to, because we aren't members of that club. We don't have to describe the God we don't believe in, because we believe in a universe that doesn't raise such an issue.

I don't doubt that you feel what you feel; as I said before, explanations may differ. What difference does it make, unless you're turning to us for validation or certainty? I've offered you what I've learned in 78 years; it seems not to be what you want to hear. Your evangelical theism isn't what I want to hear. Can we just get on with working for compassion and justice in the community, whatever stories we weave to give meaning to our existence?

Erika Baker said...


I'm sorry. I'm one of those people who keep on at a point, a bit like a ferret once its got hold of something.
It's tiresome, I know! And I'll stop now.

My point has only ever been that neither of our views can be proven.
It's a conceit of mine - I like to talk to intelligent people believing myself to be reasonably intelligent, and I just cannot believe that people I like and respect hold views that to me, seem to be not very intelligent.

Not to have faith in God is hugely intelligent. But to claim that God ought to be provable through scientific means is, to my mind, not intelligent at all.
And so I got stuck on this point.

I don't think I'm accountable, as you put it. That's just it - faith is not accountable, it just IS. I can no sooner explain why I love my wife than I can explain why I believe in God.
All I could ever explain - if our conversation ever progressed to this - is how I experience my faith and what difference it makes to my life.

I'm not even sure I'm a theist in the conventional sense. Adrian may disagree. I believe that all religion is man-made words. But it's based around a kernel of truth.
Richard Holloway calls it The Love that Haunts the Universe. I love that thought.

And because that Love stands for justice and compassion - of course we can agree to work for that and to leave it at that!
If that's where you want to leave it, I have no problem.

If, however, we're having a theological debate, I might just end up as a ferret again:-)

the gnat's kneecap distance between us is, for me, the difference between hope and nihilism and despair in my own life. I have to believe in a purpose other than my own limited humanity. I may be a fool, but without that hope I'd be suicidal.

Fortunately, I have been given the capacity to believe and the "experience" to sustain my faith despite a questioning intellect that takes me further and further from the centre of all faith communities.

You may call it chance or wishful thinking or self fulfilling prophecy.
I call it a grace, a true gift from God.

Gary Paul Gilbert said...

Murdoch again.

Some people are getting withdrawal symptoms after seeing James Cameron's film Avatar:

Some worlds created by imagination do seem to contrast unfavorably with the physical world we must deal with day-by-day. There are books I disappear into and come out of only with a wrench. The world of god-talk seems to be such a realm, though it seems less vividly imagined nowadays. From the orchestra seats, dramatic illusion seems to hold, but from the sides or backstage, you can see why they call the scenery "flats." Nevertheless, one may leave the theatre humming the tunes.

Karen Armstrong has a recent book, The Case for God, which oddly enough is actually a case for praxis. She concedes that God is not only unknowable in physical terms but is defined as unknowable in mysticism. Those who seek to experience God seem to come to the dark night of the soul, to encounter the Void. This seems to satisfy mystics, to strip away everything, to experience emptiness, nothing, for then they can just get on with practice.

What is, is, after all. We all expeience it. Descriptions and explanations differ (as I may have said before -- I repeat myself a lot).

Erika Baker said...


I love Karen Armstrong! And your quote says precisely what I've been trying to explain.

With one difference, not all mystics follow the Via Negativa. St Francis, for example, was a cataphatic mystic, as was Julian of Norwich. And the Via Positiva people would agree that God is unknowable in the sense that we cannot understand him and can have no meaningful words about him. But they would not agree that this means we cannot sense his existence.

That's why I can't cope with this My Jesus My Saviour stuff, and why I feel reduced to talking about my experience to anyone who really wants to know what drives me and why. I cannot say anything meaningful ABOUT God, but I can say something about my own life.

But in the end - yes, what does it mean for us in practice is the biggest question.
To that extent, we can certainly agree!

This thread is dropping a bit low in the blog by now, so maybe we can continue this or a similar conversation some time on another thread!
All the best to you both.