Thursday 4 August 2011

Now I'll be Serious and Theological

I'll try to be a bit serious for a change. I happened upon the Archbishop's CEFACS Lecture at the Centre for Anglican Communion Studies, Birmingham on Wednesday 3rd November 2004.

In it, Rowan Williams is claiming that being involved in theological education is to participate and to proclaim in something that has taken place and been transfomative. It is odd to do musical education that does not involve singing or playing an instrument, and so it should be so with theology - you use it and carry it through practically.

It reminds me that some see the point of Sociology to not just analyse the world but to transform it - transform it once you understand it. Of course the ideologues think this the most, whereas some are busy still trying to understand it.

Rowan Williams says we have been reminded in the 20th century that:

God is not simply an area of study that we can easily demarcate, we depend in theology on people who have some skills in living and knowing in God's presence.

Now there is a having it both ways in Williams's justification for Christian theology as such, for, at first he says:

Christian theology begins from the series of events – events of transformation.

These are revelations, starting with Abraham and getting to the Covenant people glorifying God and communicating him:

Out of that comes that further phase of theological understanding driven by the event, the change that we call the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Right, but later, in advising that one inhabits the biblical narrative - "We have to watch the story in its process. We have to attend to and be involved in the drama of the narrative." - he states:

And so a theological education that is designed to produce people who are really literate in the Bible; that I think has to be an education which looks very very carefully and patiently at the contours of these stories. It does not immediately rush off to the historical critical question – what really happened?

I'm sorry, but it seems to me that what really happened is a crucial question if you are going to claim that there have been events of transformation!

Otherwise one gets lost in a premodern narrative that has no more root than a good novel, or a postmodern space for a premodern tale.

It matters to me that the account of the resurrection reads to me like mythology. It is not to say it is 'false', but it is to say that we are talking about human beings and culture. Culture is not 'false' either, but it can get its explanations all misdirected.

As with the Bible, the same is with doctrine (in this article):

I would like to think of doctrine, as with scripture itself, as the process of finding the words for a new landscape which like any such process is going to be in many ways vulnerable and rather bumpy.

Vulnerable? He means inadequate as explanation.

It also means that, within the realm of mystery, different explanations responding to the mythical texts are going to be equally valid.

"A history of discarded solutions" is for me discarding nonsenses like the Trinity, like a body that is dead living again in some transformed manner that is actual, or a woman who gives birth without sexual intercourse. And that's only the beginning of the objections.

Because, unless these are mythology, even myths that in some cultures gave rise to transformations, they do indeed produce pseudo-science and pseudo-history.

The Eastern Orthodox might be subtle - that you can't say this, and you can't say that - but there is plenty they do say and they say it liturgically.

Now I don't have too much problem with conserved liturgy, so long as we know what it is doing. It is a means of using forms of language for human effect: of the spiritual-raising, it can be said. It is about moving off to the side, and using a non-common form of language in order to do some overall reflecting, and to engage a ritual that involves some binding together.

Rowan Williams thinks there is a problem of interpretation between the 4th and 5th centuries - a "tightrope walk". The problem I see is between the centuries up to the later eighteenth and then since.

If I understand Bishop David Jenkins, now in retirement around Ripon and Leeds, correctly, the problem for him is that God revealed himself clearly within the biblical narrative, including via the resurrection of Christ, but he has left our times without a language to appreciate and participate what went on then, and he cannot believe that God would so abandon us in particular.

This is why Bonhoeffer and Barth (mentioned by Williams as being orthodox not revisionist) mattered to David Jenkins, as each giving a means of bridging to reach our times - one via a disappearing God of one-way revelation and another by some sort of an unworked-out secular Christianity (that puzzles me) of busy peopel. Rather different from the Tillich approach of people pausing with questions leading to Tillich's systematic answers.

But I am suggesting that our writers and thinkers have got something right, and that we understand mythology better, and therefore we do have the right and duty to treat those texts of those times as an anthropologist would, and that we can and should apply critical historiographical methods to those times.

Say: Stephen Hawking is speculating that there is 'loss of information' in black holes, because the material and energy into them will be lost as the black hole is non-permanent. He then decides, against his scientific critics, who demand conservation of information, but agreeing with them in general, that there may indeed be no information loss because in a multiverse there may be a universe without black holes and thus no information loss.

Now this looks like modern day mythology, and probably is, but it comes with a difference: that similar visual insights (after Roger Penrose) and then mathematics have created and shown that there are black holes, and a big bang, and observers have now discovered actual black holes, and the background static we hear is about three degrees of uncooled activity from the big bang.

Now these explanations can shift, and shift in terms of paradigms, but based on discovery of details and mathematics, these are very powerful narratives. In contrast, the Christian narratives are weak. They are based on a cusp of supernaturalist cultures of a particularist end-time prophet made universal in a charismatic fast changing set of communities all looking for relief from daily agonies.

None of these texts inherited have been subjected at the time to critical historical techniques in the sense we have them today. There are historians of today who examine 'what happened' stretching back and most of it is about the early Jews and Christians in response, starting some twenty years after the death of Jesus. Looking at that is like looking at a fog of contradictions and assertions, if despite plenty happening - among those affected -but it is all supernaturalist and a slippage from end time thinking.

The biologist will say virgins do not give birth to ordinary boys and when you die the brain rots fast, so even if consciousness is a mystery there isn't the same one sending around some transformed body through walls and contradicting space and time. And this science matters, not some pseudo-science. All the narratives in the world do not get around this; the 'transformation' then is something else, as much subjective in the followers as any objective point of source. The early Jews and Christians (indeed Middle Ages Jews and Christians) had a 'way of talking' and that's it there too.

So if I am a theologian, I am one who says there was no incarnation in a particular person, because I am not prepared to be history-like and pseudo-scientific by burying myself in a lot of ancient texts and then emerge and understand the rest of reality differently. I'm not prepared to ditch scientific discovery, which, like social science, produces answers you do NOT want, and absorb myself into some kind of postmodern fantasy world of the premodern for answers that you DO want.

I can say that those texts are contextually interesting and challenging within themselves, but really we are talking about ethics.

And maybe this disappearance into Church history is why the Church has been so unethical in its time. Even now, this Archbishop would sacrifice the participation and blessings of gay and lesbian people in order that the Church comes first. When you have Bible as psuedo-history and pseudo-science, and myth as doctrine, and loss of the self into narratives, then you end up getting things the wrong way around - ethics become second to the resulting institution. It seems that the 'Body of Christ' has different grades of participants: indeed the whole 'Bishops and the ordinal' suggests a different grade of participant. Lay people behave!

Here is how theology might be done instead. All scriptures are mythologies, and of their time. We might see, in a relative way, what was going on. The Qur'an can be read for someone trying to build a united community based on reconciliation and internal equality (and failing on occasions). The Qur'an contains texts to allow war in cases of defence, but is mainly about spiritual war. Useful? Probably. The Bhagavad Gita is actually set in a civil war of two armies facing each other. Arjuna says he does not want to fight and Krishna says do your duty. Useful? Maybe, and there's more in it. Jesus employs a reverse ethic, Paul universalises. Useful? Probably.

That's it, really. The religious body can be the place that uses these and other texts for reflection and asking what's next. Church is not about doctrines or funny things that take place when people drink wine and eat bread discs. Ah: people do things to bind together, but that's the point. You can theologise presences and absences all you like, but in the end people do what people do.

And it matters that fewer people are doing it. The old thought forms don't work any more. When I took a service for the other folks in the almshouses recently, I completely demythologised the religious content that I stated and talked in a local way about human journeying while we are alive. It was appreciated. It was theology, but it was ex the supernatural.

God may be in this or not. I don't care, and I don't find the God language very meaningful. There was no one revelation in the past, nor several: just a series of cultural shifts and different understandings. We have ours. If theology cannot work within our culture, then it has no place in the university. It still might be in a sect's seminary, but it is socially dead.

The difference with music is that the instruments still work. They do work. Science does work. The academic disciplines work. But the old theological language does not work, except in some sects. Rowan Williams might inhabit the fantasy, but I will stay outside, thanks.

Near the end of his lecture he states:

I would say that if our Anglican Communion is to discover itself as something which exemplifies the body of Christ rather than just a set of national groups opting to be more or less friendly to each other – usually less these days – we need a theological education like this.

Oh dear oh dear.Well, I really would like Unitarianism to continue as a free space for religious difference to come together. But it just may not go on. One has to be realistic. He is still building castles in the air.

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