Wednesday 10 March 2010

A Magnificent Lecture

I discovered at the Barton Anglican church this morning that people who attended the Archbishop of Canterbury's Bishop King Lecture at Lincoln were very impressed; one of the "pedestrian questions" afterwards, whether people should obey the Ten Commandments was, nevertheless inputted into this morning's high quality sermon (I thought) by the retired priest Gordon Plumb. I suggested that he had it put on the church website. He said he will first "tart up" the text as some were notes ad-libbed; but a joke was to make a podcast of his sermon as was done of the Archbishop's lecture where this priest asked for and received a link to it from the church's website.

The podcast has an abrupt end, but I think we've got the message in full. I see what this morning's preacher meant: it is a very impressive lecture. Rowan Williams speaks in a way that reminds me of Armand Marie Leroi in his one and a half hour television survey of evolution as a chaos system entitled What Darwin Didn't Know. Williams too gives a slower, sparing, economical speech and, at last, he can be well understood.

Here are my notes of the speech in the podcast:

The title of lecture - Faith, Hope and Charity in Tomorrow's World - can mean anything you want it to mean!

Faith, hope and charity are good things, so to get a grip on these is not easy. To do so I will come at it in a roundabout way and will approach these as a mystic did, namely the 16th century St. John on the Cross.

He takes for granted the human mind working three ways: it understands, remembers and wants. Or this is an interaction of understanding, memory and will. The distinctive fresh insight he offers is that put these with faith, hope and charity and you get a perfect picture where we start (understanding, memory and wanting) and where we finish (faith, hope and love).

In the Christian life, he says:
Faith is what happens to our understanding;
Hope is what happens to our remembering;
Love is what happens to our wanting.

To grow up as a Christian is to take that journey from understanding into faith, remembering into hope, and will into love.

He also believed that in Christian growing a very difficult process is we lose our bearings on the way. What we thought we understood we never did, what we thought we remembered is covered with confusion and what we thought we wanted turned out to be empty. We have to be recreated in faith and hope and love.

Some of the contemporary cultural crises confront us in understanding, remembering and wanting, and involve how we try to deny the problem is posed, and also can show how we as people of faith recover our direction and enter into the fullness of our humanity [on this journey].

So in our culture now, intelligence is not much prized (if an overstatement): it is an environment where any conviction is as good as another; one wonders how intelligence works where people ask 'what is truth?'. One approach now teaches knowledge as functional - education is to make us a more competitive economy. One might ask about such intelligence in the financial world. This does prize intelligence: it is not about the mind being stretched, challenged, and enriched (that indeed may be unprofitable). In a postmodern environment, claims to truth, never mind absolute truth, are seen as offensive or oppressive. It's a dark night or brick wall for intelligence: of what knowing is for. This affects our Christian understanding too: "We've lost a great deal of our doctrinal uncertainty, however loudly we may shout about it." [Rowan Williams] We have lost a sense that we can confidently trace the works of God and confidently relay to the world what God has said.

We deny this sometimes by slipping back into tribal, moralising and noisy forms of faith which never quite come to terms with the huge crisis and challenge in the middle of it all. We've lost a lot of our bearings. The Church at large carries on saying what it has said; and has always said in the context of worship; it reads its Bible faithfully: and yet there is a degree of loss of nerve, loss of confidence. Can we really understand God, to expect people to absorb the doctrinal universe with its full pattern that an earlier generation (or so we think) inhabited? The present Pope has identified (very shrewdly and more than once) a loss of confidence in reason. He doesn't mean rational procedures as much as a loss of patience with argument, real mutual persuasion and careful argument which might enlarge our minds to receive more of the truth. Our intelligence is not in a good way inside or outside of the Church: we have devised successful ways of pretending there's not a problem.

St. John of the Cross says out of the brick wall before our intelligence and confusion and loss regarding understanding, faith grows in its true meaning - not as a system or comprehensive answer, but it appears simply as dependable relationship. We may not understand or have the words easily but one learns to be confident or reliant on a presence and other who does not change or go away. When the signposts and landmarks have been taken away there is the presence that does not go. That's faith in a deeply Biblical sense.

When the disciples say something spectacularly stupid a number of times, and Jesus says, 'Don't even you understand?' Or the number of times they ask silly questions or try to turn away or manifestly don't know what is going on. But then there is John Chapter 6 (Peter) when they also say, 'Where else can we go?' The presence is dependable: while they may be insecure and volatile or running away the one they confront in Rabbi and Master will not go away.

The loss of understanding of the clear sense of what we know and how we know is part of the difficult business of learning to question at every level who we are. But we are somehow set free to face this and live with it by the conviction that we are not let go. Faith as dependable relationship is something other than faith as a system of propositions, faith as confidence in my own capacity to master truth; it is much more a confidence that I can be mastered by truth - that 'I' can be held even when I don't think 'I' can hold on.

In our age and ahead the faith we as Christians proclaim will need to be not a glib system but the possibility of dependable relationship: we need to point to God who does not let go, to Christ who does not go away, but the rub is we need ourselves to be dependable people: for those who feel abandoned and who don't know where they are. In our faithfulness to the lost, suffering and marginal we begin to show what it is to have faith in the one who does not let go. One of the biggest challenges to the Church in our age is how we embody that kind of dependability in this society and throughout the world. It does need a bit of a shift in the kind of Church we think we are. Given that we are commonly perceived as people who are anxious to whom they say no.

In the dark night of the intelligence we are being led towards dependable relation: to offer it and embody it.

The dark night and brick wall affect memory just as much: our social amnesia. A newspaper (every six months or so) asks what is Britain and Britishness, our history forgotton and our teaching in schools. What is truth here for memory becomes, 'Have we forgotten who we were?' Crises of identity is also common in society: what is it to be Western, Christian, modern. Crisis of identity also with Jewish and Muslim. And the crises are with individuals too and no less serious. These are crises about continuity. 'Am I the same person as I was?' There's no job for life, no stable relationships for life. Is there something that holds together the coming and going of experiences? Fractured careers and relationships seem to be the order of the day. Is there a story about who I am and who we are?

There are strategies of denial in memory for Church, society and individual. We can construct satisfying stories; we can recreate an imagined past; we take refuge not in good tradition but an artificial traditionalism which is not good. We pretend continuities that are not there. A dark night of memory, then, but what would St. John of the Cross say to that?

Hope is not just a confidence in a future but in a continuity. The same living reality comes through. There is hope in relation: in relation to that which does not abandon or go away: relations to a reality that knows, and sees and holds who we are. There is a witness of who you are, your identity. The bits of yourself you cannot pull together in a convincing story are all held in a single gaze of love. You don't have to work out and finalise who you are and have been, or settle your truth or your story, because in the presence that does not go away all that you have been and are is still present and real held together in a unifying gaze. Disparate and disconnected bits are held together by a string twitched by a divine observer and witness. Bonhoeffer's poem is vivid, written when in prison after the Hitler assassination plot. They say he's like a squire in the prison yard: the poem is about the great gult between what they see (confidence) and what he knows is going on inside him (his weakness and loss, inner wimpering and dread). 'Which is me?' he asks. His answer is surprising and blunt. He hasn't got a clue: God settles it - who he really is. He doesn't have to decide. This is the hope St. John of the Cross talks about. It goes beyond the assumption of what I see and know, that instead I am more than I realise in the eyes of God for good or ill; hope in what is unseen (biblical), to hope in the one who doesn't need to be told how humans work because he knows the human heart (biblical: St. John's Gospel). Confidence in past, present and future is held in one relationship. Memory confusions of who I am and was, and we, become bearable because of the witness in heaven who does not abandon.

This suggests a Church marked by profound patience in actual human beings in their confusions and uncertainties, patience in an environment where so much is unclear and getting lost, patience that it takes time to grow up into Christ: it takes time for each one of us and for the body/ community to grow. Hope and patience belong together. Only a Church that is learning patience can proclaim hope effectively.

What about the will? There is a great deal of choice talk in our culture. It means just supermarket shelf choice. This means disconnected, fractured, choosing. Such choices don't much matter, the culture says, but being free here and now matters to effect such choice for me. In this we lose touch with the deep desires that make us who we are, lose touch with a current in our lives moving towards a goal. We have underplayed reality of Eros (sounds strange when sexual imagery is everywhere, as it is), but Eros here means a profound desire that makes me who I am that makes the whole of my life drawn towards something beyond myself that gives meaning - the other person, the God I seek to love. Such is not so clear in our society. We privilege consumer mentality but fail to ask deep questions about the direction of the desire at the root of our being. We deal and deny it via strategies that increase consumer choices in society, that sharpen assertion and aggression in individual contexts: we use the language of being 'purpose driven' that only means more aggressive assertion. We lose touch with the notion that the most important freedom is to be ourselves and grow - not what we want moment by moment, but to discover slowly and patiently the direction in life to grow as God means us to do so. Will and choice in that framework, not assertion or choosing in a vacuum.

St. John of the Cross says if we face the dark night of the will and freedom and choice and their trivialising in our selves and culture, maybe we shall become able to grow into love. Love: an expression of the freedom to receive: Love as that which drives us to take time and let go of anxiety; Love which permits us to be enriched, to be given-to, to be made alive, to be breathed into. Not a passive thing but a state of openness to joy; love not just as doing good: but as a deep, contemplative regard for the world, humanity and human beings in particular, and God.

On faith, hope and charity, St Paul says it is not just doing good but it has to be about the delight in another, a refusal to be glad in another's failure, the willingness to receive truth as a life-giving, joy-giving thing. Love is something generated by being loved, not that we loved God but that God loved us (says 1 John).

All the themes come together. That presence that doesn't go away, that remembers and holds in a single gaze what has been and is true of us, that eternal and unshakable witness to what we are and dependable presence of what we are is love. We are seen, known, held and above all we are welcomed. We are the objects of an eternal delight. If this sinks into our eternal being, then what the Church is fundamentally and must show itself to be is a place where time and space are given: where people are allowed the space to experience eternal love, where nothing needs to be left at the door, and where people are made free to receive in a world that so often seems to be demanding of them all the time: that they trade, offer, and out there making a difference. Is the Church an environment in which people can learn to open themselves to joy that can only come by letting go of anxious selfishness and the obsession with 'choosing'? Just as it is a great challenge to the Church to be a dependable place and patient, it is a great challenge for it to be sufficiently still for people to open up, sufficiently quiet and unanxious so people can receive what the ultimate truth of the universe wants to give them. These are some of the ways in our cultural context (with its anxieties and obsessions) and through the crises - the dark night or brick wall - in which we might come to rediscover those three... [ends]

Given what I do and don't believe, I think this vision - and with all this about patience it is a Rowan Williams vision - can be turned around to roughly parallel what he says. I do agree with his central thrust, once turned around (he may then say it has then lost the 'witness' involved but then he is Christian and I am religious humanist).

Rowan Williams is presenting a kind of via negativa. Have the crisis of the brick wall of knowledge now and you release (if painfully) a means to faith; have the crisis of memory and continuity individually and collectively and you can progress to hope that links past, present and future; have a crisis in terms of realising the shallowness of our consumerism and you can end up with a love that comes about through receiving enrichment. All this needs space and time to develop and for the Church to cradle where the transformation can take place.

My own turning it around is this. The Church, however small, must be large. It must be elastic in its walls. It must converse and dialogue and debate. A new person coming in changes the Church. It must hear different voices and be confident that these voices can sometimes create consensus and sometimes become difference that can become an acceptance of difference. I think we can be more positive about reasoning if only as a process: but we can say more that there is research and that there are therefore points of anchoring; we can say that some knowing is more like art: that such is creative and expansive, and we don't need to agree.

If the Church is space, and people are friendly in their conversations, then that allows people to develop their own story. For example, part of my identity is an involvement in an English Presbyterian community that started out very differently, militantly indeed, that evolved its beliefs and developed a liberal identity. There is a joining here of a personal identity and a collective identity. I can tell a story of my life. Also my life can be seen as a resistance to consumerism and ambition, in that I have paid for and failed in some of education as it is because it is so bogus and I have said so, when others have called failure and disguise an opportunity to show better statistics. So we can see, by going into and being in a religious community, that we each have a life story that also relates to a collective story and that it expresses values that are contrary to the shallow consumerism all around. The very act of spending an hour of reflection, meditation and contemplation, followed by discussions, is part of the building of a memory and connectedness.

When we have that knowing conversation and that reconstructing of memory, what we also do is find a depth of who we are on the life journey. This is also framed in community. One thing that has struck me in being in a small church of known people is that they keep dying. You become very aware that each life is its own entity, and that each life ending says something profound about the living. It underlines that, in developing the community for beyond your own time, you are also someone who will die and, hopefully, the community will go on to serve others. It has the potential for a longevity that you cannot have. So you come to know, as these people die, and as other people appear (as they must do, unless the place closes), something about your own being and transience. It is a physical link with one part of the point of the religious encounter, which is to come to terms with death. And then your 'real being', so to speak, is glimpsed in that moment of something other, that maybe within a religious service of worship, or in a moment for which that worship has assisted - for example when today I sat in the car and watched lots of birds having dustbaths in the tenfoot that I'd just driven along.

This is my parallel account, along a similar way of what I think is a very profound lecture, one all about relatedness and what is the more significant as opposed to all the noise, including the exasperating noise that is all too visible presently in religious institutions, which I suspect is a subtext in what he was saying.


Murdoch Matthew said...


I like your turnaround better than the Archbishop's abstraction-fest. His vision begs the question of relationship with an invisible, unknowable entity.

One learns to be confident or reliant on a presence and other who does not change or go away.

Yet the example of St. John of the Cross shows an entity who flees from all apprehension, who is known finally in the Void, the absence of everything else. In other words, God is Existence. The only thing we know for sure is that we exist. As long as we exist, we have possibilities (called grace in Christian talk).

How do we relate to this black, blank wall (not brick) of existence?

Disparate and disconnected bits are held together by a string twitched by a divine observer and witness.

We are twitched by a divine string? (God is a fly fisherman?) We read divine patterns in the shifting perception of our feelings? (A forest tribesman reported that conversion to Christianity was a great improvement over previous belief that gave significance to every bird song. Now they could go somewhere without being constantly diverted by a new bird sound. But now we must be led by discerning meanings in our feelings?)

We are seen, known, held and above all we are welcomed. We are the objects of an eternal delight.

Ah yes. Theodicy. We are objects of eternal delight, right up to the earthquake or tsunami. This issue has arisen lately, only to be tamped down with the proposal that God shares our pain and comforts us in our trouble. Don't wonder about where the omnipotent, omniscient deity fits into the picture. (There is no problem, of course, if what happens, happens. No divine purpose to be questioned in the creation of predators and prey, diseases and hosts, disasters and populations.)

I know my musings are literal minded and uninformed. Some people are deaf, some colour blind. Maybe I'm god-blind. But history (overall, not the Adam-Moses-Christ-Church arc of Christian narrative) doesn't show signs of external direction, nor do people who speak wisely of God all agree.

The relationship the Archbishop touts seems to be one with the hero of a story. (There are people who walk with Sherlock Holmes. Some speak Elvish and live in Middle Earth.) But the traditional Christian story doesn't cohere. You've studied these things more than I have (A retired copy editor, I just note inconsistencies and questions of fact). I'm glad you find constructive movement in Rowan Williams's thought. I don't see the church as having much to offer, but it can certainly attempt to do less harm.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

Of course I agree with you, because it is necessary to turn it around, and without it one sees (and I'm sorry, Erika, but it is so) the layering of a device on top. Nevertheless, there is a via negativa being used, that the breakdown within contemporary postmodernism provides an opportunity. I would see that as being more Buddhist in orientation, that the negativa is more it and not the added layer.

Also, I understand the questions were "pedestrian". I'm just wondering if I'd been there. I would have been impressed, but would I have got my need for a turnaround listening there and then, or would I have been dazzled with lights in a fog? When you listen and transcribe, by typing at manic speed, and then have to pause to catch up, and then listen to edit, you then get the form and the content, and start to see the big picture. I tell you I can listen to lectures and sermons and come away clueless, even well simpler than this (and this had the form of a three repeated structure and internal summarising with peaking). I might have taken a pad and pen in order to 'get it'. Had I 'got it' then I could have made the via negativa comment and the point about an overlay being added to what is actually a self-realisation in the process of breakdown into opportunity.

I've not read St. John of the Cross at all, so I've no idea if his rendering is faithful. That, of course, is another issue, and one an 'expert' might come back on.

Erika Baker said...

"and I'm sorry, Erika, but it is so"

Your faith is touching.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

You wish to be cynical and carping, but I'm including you in regarding your previous points elsewhere. Sorry, but there are logical arguments in this theology, and in the lecture a kind of via negativa is used: the crises to get to a position, but it is possible to do this via a kind of Buddhist opening out, a discipline of letting be. It does not need the extra layering as Murdoch points out.

So my faith isn't touching anyone, except just trying to say he has done a very good Christian lecture indeed and that for a religious humanist like myself I see this extra layer, and you criticise me elsewhere and I'm simply saying there is that argument. I'm sure you agree with the Archbishop, and that is fine (though it doesn't need me to say so, or to be so touching in saying so).

Erika Baker said...

Actually,I liked all you said, I just giggled at your parenthesis.
I don't want to be carping, I'm sorry if that's how it came across.
I just love your certainties - to me, they're faith, just like mine.

Murdoch Matthew said...


I wonder that you don't see the blinding egotism in a statement like "I just love your certainties - to me, they're faith, just like mine."

You have the Truth, and you keep harping at Adrian to say, "Yes, Yes, Erica, of course, you're right." But as Adrian says over and over, he's dealing with evidence and reason and you're proposing something else -- intuition, metaphysics, available only through your reporting.

Yes, we have faith in facts, and evidence, not so much in reports of mental states formed on authority and fables.

You show a touching faith that everyone is just like you, if they'd only give in and admit it. But it isn't so. "Faith" is another kind of opinion. Opinions differ. Science has led to agreements across cultures. Theology has all the ancient heresies and orthodoxies still contending after all these centuries.

Erica, I see these discussions as dealing with ideas. You keep diverting them to personal issues. I can't discuss your intuitions without going off track on your reliability as a witness. Uncharitably, I see you interrupting a meeting of humanists by shouting "Look at me! Look at me!"

And this is rude and too personal. But this is Adrian's forum. I should leave him to deal with your repetitions, which he does with admirable patience.

Gary Paul Gilbert said...

Dear Adrian, I just listened to the sermon by the ABC and found it boring. "Faith, hope, and charity," as Rowan admits, is less than exciting stuff to preach about. The intended audience was a group of people who were giving an award to him, so they would necessarily find anything he said brilliant. He gives the impression of having to find something to say, whereas in his talk on the uniqueness and finality of Jayzuhs, at least he sounded as if he had some convictions, however dogmatic.

You deserve credit for taking the time to transcribe this and the other talk.

Your patience must be amazing!


Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

There were some interesting additional goodies in there. One I put quotation marks around:

"We've lost a great deal of our doctrinal uncertainty, however loudly we may shout about it."

To underline this, he added: We deny this sometimes by slipping back into tribal, moralising and noisy forms of faith which never quite come to terms with the huge crisis and challenge in the middle of it all.

There is nothing new in this at all. So I think he is in part talking to those who have used him institutionally and are now, for example, dominant voices in Fulcrum. So there is still institutional politics in this.

As for what Erika is saying, there is not an equivalence between proposing an extra layer, of that sort of revelatory needing theism that somehow centres Christ in it, and an approach that does not propose this. The person who proposes more has to demonstrate more. For me, it isn't certainty that there isn't the extra layer - I don't know, and sometimes I use the theistic language of the extra layer as a liturgical shorthand - but it's better to work with what is at issue. In this case it is how a crisis of knowing, memory and will leads on to restoration and even better things. The process is good enough. The God that won't go away and Christ that doesn't go away are important but not essentials.

On the more personal level, perhaps Erika wants me to argue for her faith position. But it is because I cannot that I have shifted out of Anglican identity. I do think the Anglican thing has become unethical, but then there are mixed signs. In the end, the extra layer requires more of a certainty than I can find, and I work at a level of the agnostic and the old one that employs Occams Razor.

Erika Baker said...

Murdoch and Adrian

I have no certainties.
I would never claim for certain that anything IS or IS NOT because I can't prove it.
A true definition of science is that something remains a hypothesis until it can either be conclusively proven or conclusively disproven. That makes sense to me.

If something cannot be proven or disproven, it can only be believed or disbelieved. Scientifically speaking, at the most you can have a working theory, but you cannot have certainty.

To that extent, my understanding is that all people who trade in certainties are, actually, dealing with belief.

I don't want Adrian to argue my faith position. I can do that very well on my own.

What I would like, but I now suspect it won't be possible round here, is for it to be seen as an equal position to the one you all hold.

I'm a bit fanatical about that and for me, it also extends to dealing with people. Until I have go to know someone deeply I would never dare accuse him of sleights of hand, dishonesty or anything else that requires true motivations being known. While I don’t know I can suspect but I cannot know.
I know I'm fairly alone in this and I can live with it.

Anyway, I should have done what I said I would do and not get involved in these conversations any longer.
I didn't want to upset you with that first comment, Adrian. Apologies again.

I’ll be sticking to Christian politics from now on – for those, your blog is absolutely outstanding.