Monday 3 January 2011

The Meaning of Affirming

I wandered via a circuitous route to Affirming Liberalism again, wondering on arrival how it is getting on. It is sad that it seems not to be getting on at all, with the website out of date, and looks like it remains local to the Oxfordshire and Berkshire area (thereabouts). Presumably there will be another conference, in that it seems centred around Keith Ward rather as Sea of Faith has been centred around Don Cupitt, with a suggestion that it might go north.

It just indicates to me, anyway, the all too easy weakness of liberal expressions of religion. What makes this weaker, I think, is that it is clearly a Church of England operation - Affirming being used as a term that Affirming Catholicism uses. However, "Affirming" in Affirming Catholicism is an ambiguous even ironic term, affirming in a way that for many traditionalist Catholics affirms in the wrong direction or isn't affirming at all. So "Affirming" for Affirming Catholics can mean "Liberal" itself and affirming the legitimacy of this form of Catholicism. In this Liberalism case, however, "Affirming" is meant to give reassurance, as a counterweight to liberalism. But it is all so political, in terms of arguing for a place in the Church of England.

The grouping (if it constitutes more than an out of date website) affirms what, for many liberals, is a matter for debate. It affirms Jesus's life, teaching, death and resurrection and the dynamic action of the Holy Spirit in the world in dispersing divine love. Well liberalism may go in such a direction, but may not affirm aspects or whole parts of these.

It affirms biblical, literary and historical criticism of the Bible as positive towards Christian belief, but again liberalism can go in a different direction: the Bible being a public book open to all sorts.

Other affirmations include the role of religious language in connecting to the divine, using reason and philosophy, drawing on the natural sciences and mathematics, the usefulness of social sciences for developing Christian ethics, and the performing arts in shaping a Christian view of life. Certainly one expects use of reason, philosophy, the sciences and social sciences, and indeed a proper engagement with the Sociology of Knowledge.

There is a desire for conversation with Evangelicals and Catholics and then other faith traditions and cultures. Yes but I wonder if it is just too internal.

Another reason for weakness may be that Affirming Catholicism is much more active and covers the liberal ground rather well. The issue then is what if you are liberal and not particularly Catholic in terms of approach. The Catholic side I've always considered is a bit of a cover: negatively a lot of dressing up and positively at least a method of spirituality. I could see the point but it was never a necessity for me either as cover or as something more psychological. So, what if these things are not attractive? What then of a group that might otherwise be called Affirming Protestantism or Affirming Reformed? This use would then be consistent with the "Affirming" as used in Affirming Catholicism.

These people would then be grouped like Evangelicals in the sense of lower Church, but of a broad affirming kind in theology and social inclusion whereas Evangelicals are rather more doctrinal and bureaucratic and exclusive in terms of social categories accepted for full participation in rituals and ministry (Open Evangelicals come across as especially bureaucratic).

Another reason for weakness is that a liberal group, if open, will attract in radicals, but radicals are nuisances when it comes to affirming. It is why Sea of Faith cannot even be considered as Christian, despite it containing some Anglican clergy and those in other denominations.

In other words, there have to be doctrinal core issues even for these Affirming Liberals. Liberalism, however, is about enquiry and searching and discovering, and a spirituality to suit; as such it is not really about being a slave to an ism at all, because either you are the sort who searches and discovers, who spreads out into religious humanism, or you are not. In the end, it depends what you are trying to protect, and what you will let go, and what are the costs involved in letting go, and what might be achieved in the search that can lead anywhere.

Another reason for liberalism being weakened is that "liberal" has become a dirty word, making anyone wearing the badge a target. But whereas I just am liberal, that is enough motivation for me to wear the badge and defend the approach - in full.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"Liberalism, however, is about enquiry and searching and discovering, and a spirituality to suit; as such it is not really about being a slave to an ism at all, because either you are the sort who searches and discovers, who spreads out into religious humanism, or you are not."

That's the question, isn't it.
For you, it means a completely open ended enquiry, and I dare say that in some contexts that is right.

In a Christian context, though, the "Christian" forms a kind of framework, a bit like the doctrinal statements we've discussed earlier. Within that framework, one can be evangelical, liberal or anglo catholic or a mix of everything depending on the issue.

I think it legitimate to call yourself liberal within a certain context and I would not expect a liberal Christian and a liberal Muslim to have the same beliefs.