Saturday 6 August 2011

The Unoriginal Dutch

The recent news that the 'Dutch rethink Christianity' isn't news at all about the rethinking of Christianity. Unitarians and Sea of Faith arrived at this point some time ago. A pastor Klaas Hendrikse puts, basically, the intellectual and sceptical line about the historicity of much of the New Testament that is well known and widely understood. He has written a book, Believing in a Non-Existent God. Sounds not unlike Taking Leave of God by Don Cupitt. The BBC correspondent, Robert Pigott, asks by summarising (rather well, actually) the evangelical interpretation of the New Testament, what Klaas Hendrikse calls the misinterpretation of Paul (doesn't take into account all of Paul, for sure). Robert Pigott forgets that there are ministers of religion in mainstream, Unitarian and Liberal/ Old Catholic Churches in Britain who think just like Pastor Hendrikse.

What is different is the response of the PKN Church, as a 'mainstream' Church. They are not pursuing this pastor or anyone else because to do so would be to single someone out. Too many people already believe in this manner.

A study by the Free University of Amsterdam found that one-in-six clergy in the PKN and six other smaller denominations was either agnostic or atheist.

As Unitarians of old found, all you have to do is read the gospel accounts and then more of the New Testament to come to views different from orthodoxy. Then add critical academic study that became more thorough in the nineteenth century and you can arrive at quite a sceptical position. There is still the narrative, but there isn't the direct history. Where there is the history, its about the Christian community already underway and justifying its leadership and rituals, under conditions of rapid change. When you try to do history of the particular prophet and his community, it becomes very Jewish, last days and strange. We don't share his worldview and indeed we don't share the last days and tradition making worldview of Paul either. Not in ordinary practical life and not in academic life either.

Something else isn't new within the BBC report either, which is this:

They want the Netherlands to be a laboratory for Christianity, experimenting with radical new ways of understanding the faith.

Let's do some history. When in 1660 the Jesuits retook Poland the Unitarians of the Minor Reformed Church were pauperised and forced to leave the country. Many went to Transylvania and the surviving (though frozen) Unitarian Church there, but many went to the comparative liberty of The Netherlands. The reason there is no Unitarian Church in The Netherlands is because it has always had a place for liberal views within its religious system, as it has within its civic system. The Poles ejected added to that liberality. There was also more liberty to act within the Netherlands, so that Puritans at the other end of the spectrum had also found places in The Netherlands, sometimes as places to pause before retrying England. Another John Robinson was such a person.

So there is nothing new in this. Nothing new in the location, nothing new in the theology, nothing new in the content. But it may be that with institutional backing, the more radical theology that exists in corners of the British Churches or outside the 'mainstream' gets to advance a bit further.

Except, I doubt it, because the 'progress' of the Churches in the British Isles is towards an Evangelical versus liberal battle, with Catholicism and High Church weakened. The mainstream stretches too wide, and just as Evangelicals may lose the Conservatives, should they walk off, the Broad Church of old to be 'in' with Evangelicals may well have to ditch the more radical brethren. If so then the denominations will become more and more plural, though none of them expect to be well populated. In some sense, the advance of the more radical theology is a parallel development with the decline of Churches - as they become more sectarian, a few want to retain a connection of 'Christianity' with wider culture, and do it via individualist, questioning, theologies.


Chris Kaye said...

Inciteful, informative, and well-written. Maybe 'all' the church paths would benefit from; instead of de-bunking anything that didn't 100% match their particular
'doctrine'; actually listening, discussing, and making some attempt to absorb this kind of 'food for thought' (I'm tempted to call it 'food for the soul', but some people would no doubt cry "blasphemy" if I suggested such a thing).

Tim Moore said...

Interesting insight, as ever. I agree that Hendrikse preaches nothing new, except perhaps to those unconnected with faith issues, and possibly also Robert Pigott, whom I blogged about in my take on the Hendrikse interview and report.

While there isn't a "Unitarian" church as such in the Netherlands, the Remonstrant congregations are a free-thinking religious denomination, which split off from the Calvinist Dutch Reformed Church in the 17th century. The Remonstrant Church is a member of the IARF, as is the UK Unitarian GA.

Erika Baker said...

"I'm tempted to call it 'food for the soul', but some people would no doubt cry "blasphemy" if I suggested such a thing"

Some undoubtedly would.
But I think even more would just not see the point.
Not believing in God but wanting to borrow Christian language an imagery for personal self-development is not feeding the soul of many.

And it's inherently lazy. Why not develop your own philosophy instead of insisting that Christianity must become something it isn't?

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

So at what point does it become something it is not? Where you set the boundary of liberality, say, rather than someone else?

Gary Paul Gilbert said...

I agree with Adrian that Hendrickse has preached nothing new. But he is not alone in the Netherlands and if, following Vatican II and the reemphasis of baptism as the primary sacrament, the church, even for a brief moment for the Vatican, is defined as the whole people of God--no longer the clerical-centered model in which the hierarchy guarantee the apostolicity of the church--then Christianity is moving in a new egalitarian direction. The liturgy, rather than something clergy do for the people, is the work of the people and it becomes conceivable that lay people will one day celebrate the eucharist. Both Rome and much Protestantism still seems to be struggling with an overemphasis on clergy and beliefs dictated by clergy which the people must believe in order to be considered members of the church.

I would relate this discussion to the booklet issued by the Dutch Dominicans in 2007, The Church and the Ministry.

Alas, the text was misread by many as being about allowing lay people to preside at the eucharist when, in fact, it is a call to an earlier model of church in which all the baptized do ministry and there would no longer be a split between a valorized clerical ministry and a devalorized so-called lay ministry.

If Christian denominations moving in this direction end up closer to Unitarianism, so what?

Gary Paul Gilbert

rick allen said...

Makes me think of Kierkegaard, and his outrage that the clergy could make such a good living professing a Christianity that believed little and demanded nothing, and that Christendom could so easily equate the good life with the demands of the gospel. Nowadays I suppose they would lock him up.

I suppose next we'll get Marxists who'll proclaim that what Karl really meant was, "You only go round once in life, and you've got to grab all the gusto you can!"

Gary Paul Gilbert said...

Rick, Kierkegaard's anticlericalism as well as his distrust of belief or dogma can easily be cited to support Hendrickse's approach to Christianity. Karl Jaspers saw a nonreligious theism in Kierkegard's notion of faith, which he contrasted with Nietzsche's religious atheism. Kierkegaard's "leap of faith" offers no certainty and, as in Fear and Trembling, may be pure madness.

Gary Paul Gilbert

Erika Baker said...

I don't set any boundaries. Anyone who wants to call themselves a Christian can do so.

I was responding to Chris who said this completely empty version of Christianity was food for the soul and who appeared to suggest that only the very conservative, literal part of the spectrum would find that view unappealing and call it blasphemous.

For most of us, it is not blasphemous but completely empty.
If we leave Christianity behind we move on to some secular philosophy that can become food for thought instead of forever battling windmills and trying to turn Christianity into a secular philosophy.

I have no problem with you doing it, it doesn't affect my faith at all, but it won't become a mass movement any time soon.
And I genuinely don't see the point.

rick allen said...

"Anyone who wants to call themselves a Christian can do so."

This is certainly correct, a necessary corolary to freedom of religon. But though our social etiqutte dictates that, if I meet a Mormon or an atheist "Lutheran" who calls himself a Christian, I will not be so boorish as to deny, in fact I must have some concept of Christianity to keep it from becoming an entirely empty category.

So I think you are right that the problem is not that this approach to Christianity is wrong, but that it is vacuous. It reduces the faith to a formal system, whose components can mean anything.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

Here you go again, Erika, denying the 'religiosity' of my position, reducing it to a secular philosophy, and yet within your sphere of Christianity, you demythologise to the extent you wish (as in previous comments on resurrection etc.) all of which cause your more conservative believers to accuse you of taking the essence out of your faith. You are just doing what they are doing, and it is the same mistaken boundary drawing.

Erika Baker said...

it's not about mistakes, it's about purpose.
As I said, I have absolutely no problem with you calling yourself a Christian.
I just don't get it.

At the widest possible definition, the difference between a religious faith and a secular philosophy is a belief in something outside ourselves, something we commonly call "God". Religion and theology are then about this "God", how, if at all, one might experience him or know anything firm about him, about what he/she might be like and what kind of response that might require of us.

If you don't believe in that "God", then using the words and concepts of a whole faith based solely on the premise that this "God" exists and that he can be known at some level" seems odd to me.
That's all.

Honestly, most people I know have faith while they're Christians and then call themselves something else when they longer have that faith.

It's actually quite rare to come across people who have no faith but still want to appropriate the language and symbolism of Christianity.
To me, it's odd.
But I'm not trying to stop you.

As I said, I was only responding to Chris so seemed to suggest that it's only fundamentalists who would find this approach unhelpful.

Leigh said...

I wouldn't say it's 'empty'. It's a matter of spiritual and communal purpose. Christianity, for some now and in the past, would not be about a supernatural God. So what? How does this discredit or strip it of 'religiosity'.

The Christian churches are full of divergences. Likewise, Judaism has always had varying approaches, some of these are even acknowledged in the Gospels, where beliefs in an afterlife, a personal God and so on were not fixed.
Judaism places more emphasis on family, communal living and ritual observances than 'supernatural faith'.
A specific definition of God is not a necessary prerequisite to Jewish observance for example. Jesus would have recognised various lines of Jewish thinking. The Sadducee's for example rejected any belief in an afterlife and any concept of punishment.

It's a shame that Christianity ever developed into an imposing structure that asked people to sink of swim, be in or out, this or that on its own terms.

History shows that the church has adapted as it has developed, including the integration of various cultures and other religious ideas. Sadly they also bullied and used violence to enforce a leading interpretation.

But there have always been dissenting voices in Christian circles: Universalist, Esoteric, Mystical, Gnostic, Unitarian, Humanistic, and Deistic.

There were also other sects such as the Ebionites and also the Marcionists who held to a maltheism towards the old testament God.

The God of John's Gospel 'love' is also pretty humanistic and doesn't demand supernaturalism. Indeed,God cannot be boxed. It's pointless to do so and every person and religion sees it differently.

Christianity is also not just about orthodox beliefs. Its about 'a way' that feeds and supports the person to live a better life. To detach it from ancestry, family, ritual, community, spirituality, tradition and familiarity is naive.

If you'd only see religious experience as being a belief in an outside supernatural system then you'd exclude many religious manifestations in the world.

rick allen said...

"Christianity is also not just about orthodox beliefs. Its about 'a way' that feeds and supports the person to live a better life. To detach it from ancestry, family, ritual, community, spirituality, tradition and familiarity is naive."

Of course it is. Except that you then are quite happy to detach it from belief.

To insist that it's more than belief is to attack a straw man. No one claims the Christian faith is belief only, apart from worship, ethics, prayer, tradition. But belief has been a component from the beginning, and though I suppose you may theortically try to promulgate a creedless Christianity (as has been attempted before) I expect that you'll just get another sect with an implicit rather than explicit creed.

Gary Paul Gilbert said...

Erika, How would you classify Buddhism? Is it a secular philosophy? Buddhism can be many things and resists the Western, Latin notion of religion. Buddhism also teaches that everything is changing or becoming. Christianity can become many things and need not have an essence. The word "secular" itself is a religious term.

Leigh, I agree with you that Judaism, on many questions, is more flexible than Christianity. Judaism emphasizes action over belief. Much is left to God to deal with, such as a notion of an afterlife. In Judaism the emphasis is on ethics, to the point where some of Kant's antisemitic enemies claimed Kant was Jewish because he emphasizes duty over belief.

Christianity, alas, became a religion of empire which was more concerned with controlling people and setting up boundaries!

Today people are free to pick and choose which parts of different traditions speak to them. For most of history one had to pretend to follow the religion of the establishment or else one risked imprisonment or execution.

Gary Paul Gilbert

Erika Baker said...

I admit, thinking about it, I do know people who call themselves Christians while grappling seriously with what it might mean, and who do touch on atheism at times.
But there's a sensitive grappling, a real searching that I can relate to. And a real respect for what the faith stands for, what people believe.

I suppose that's what I'm missing here. Every time someone famous in Christian circles says something vaguely theological, Adrian pops up and demolishes it with gusto, informing everyone that he doesn't believe this bit and that bit and the other bit, that all of it is intellectually shallow, outdated etc... and then everyone else pops up and comments how insightful that was...

and I'm left thinking - but if you don't like any of it, what are you doing here?

And so I'd like to ask, genuinely and not critically or sneeringly - what is it that keeps you all so engaged with Christianity? What is it you actually DO believe in that you find in Christianity that you couldn't find in any reasonably sound non-theist humanist philosophy?

Murdoch Matthew said...

I'm left thinking - but if you don't like any of it, what are you doing here?

And so I'd like to ask, genuinely and not critically or sneeringly - what is it that keeps you all so engaged with Christianity?


If you don't like the discussions on this blog, what are you doing here? Your plaints are always similar, and when they're responded to, you just raise them again.

What keeps us engaged with Christianity? It's the road our culture has traveled to get here and we can go on only from this point. "Christianity" is less settled than you suppose. The early Christians told and retold stories about Jesus and arrived at communal interpretations. Most of these were declared to be heresies at Nicea, and an official version was imposed and maintained through a top-heavy authoritarian structure. That structure is now crumbling, and we're back to groups of people trying to make sense of the old stories.

Buried in the surviving teachings of Jesus and Paul is the idea of a radical equality. "Where two or three gather . . ." The myths resonate with present experience, even where the facts are dubious. Your intuitions aren't evidence to me, but we draw similar ethical conclusions from contemplating the tradition. No, Adrian's and our rationality is unlikely to issue in a mass movement, but it may salvage something from centuries of pontificating authority, which now seem pure speculation, based on no evidence. Liturgy is still the Work of the People, and there's no way to chose between variations other than taste and affinity for the practitioners.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

I do not call myself a Christian. If I was, I am not. I used to say I practise Christianity, but now I don't. But I am religious, because I participate in religious ritual, as do the Buddhists, and like the Buddhists my view is that practice takes you along a road towards what used to be called 'salvation' or, that is, a clarity of appreciation. A secular philosophy has no need of religious ritual or observance. It might lead to action, but it might not, just as sociology might or might not (indeed theology alone might or might not). But being religious is to participate in ritual and community and to define the two together and identify them together. It ceases to be about doctrine and belief - there is no prize for trying to believe things that contradict science, technology and ordinary, practical reasoning.

I don't call myself as practising Christianity now because I don't, but many a non-realist or critical realist still uses those forms. The Dutch churchman still says the Lord's Prayer - I don't.

I think I might alter my blogging mission, perhaps less to explain a broad religious humanism and pluralism to people, especially religious liberals and liberal religious, and perhaps point out more thoroughly how these Christians who claim they are 'within' are having it both ways and are really religious humanists with a bit of cliche gloss. But I'm not a hostile type. It just interests me how much I and those like me receive hostility from other supposed liberals and it indicates to me that they do it to show they are still 'in' even though many a Christian thinks they are 'out'. After all, I am not trying to marginalise gay and lesbian people, or liberals about doctrine, from the main Churches, but a lot of those in the Churches are doing precisely that on exactly the same boundary-drawing basis as shown here.

Leigh said...

God has always had the capacity to be defined broadly. This has been done by institutions themselves, often contradicting each other, or at the very least its been a personal challenge for the individuals in those places.
I would say it’s very possible to be a very devout member of most religions and never be formally asked to ‘define’ or explain what God, the scriptures or rituals really mean.
Most of the successful religions have, consciously or not, succeeded by keeping these types of beliefs, forms and structures implicit of meaning. (at least for it’s followers).

This can cause individuals and groups to develop different ideas, even within tightly controlled religious groups, because they each conform or maintain unity by keeping outward forms (i.e rituals), or language.

Ideologically loaded sermons can be taken or moulded to an individuals particular beliefs. This doesn’t necessarily require mental gymnastics because they accept that the source of their beliefs can be interpreted varyingly. (The Anglican communion comes to mind)

Each religious strand or philosophical tradition has, for the most part, at some stage attempted to grapple with outlining how they see or define God. In the western religious landscape we’ve been exposed to a religious history that has taught religious supernaturalism to the masses, possibly not always for pure intentions, and tied this heavily to its teachings about the nature of God.
I would argue that the nature of God, and virtually all other beliefs, have evolved by becoming established and then being changed over time.
Christianity, in itself, is an evolution of ideological thinking and belief away from Judaism. We know that Judaism has also changed over time, with the Gospels even acknowledging various divergences of belief. For example, the Sadducee’s did not believe in an afterlife or any form of punishment or reward after death.

Judaism did not necessarily enforce a specific conception of God beyond oneness either. Nevertheless Jewish conceptions, as now, do accept varying approaches that are not necessarily in tune with Christianity. Hinduism is probably one of the religions that is most tolerant of various views towards the number of Gods (if any), and the nature of God. It could be wondered if the description of Brahman, or any manifestation, is beyond the natural world. Were deities an easier way for people to convey or explain a philosophical problem, devotion, need or quality?

Leigh said...

If a person sees religion as a response, or indeed a need of the human experience (cultural, communal, spiritual) then scripture, God and everything else could be seen as a process of human development and history. How we see or relate to ‘God’, the world, nature and each other is then a matter of developing humane and ethical relationships.

To see religion, and God, as primarily an engagement of building relationships with each other, formulating ethics and meaning pushes it into the forefront of the daily human experience. As each experience is subjective then we can expect these relationships to be a process of engagement and debate that varies across time.

This experience is then expressed through religious literature like the biblical scriptures, religious structures, commands, creeds and so on. Much of this writing, history and debate could be seen as a work rooted in its period with many aspects seen as a response of specific historical conditions, ideals and world views. Much else, especially the supernatural, could be viewed as a natural response to a confusing world, allegory, myth, and/or metaphor. Indeed, even the catholic church accepts that many aspects of the Bible were never intended to be taken literally. Myth implies a truth beyond literal truth. God could be seen in this way as well.

I wouldn’t say a change in how we see God would necessarily ‘demote’ Jesus’s work. The same could be said for Buddha and he is not necessarily accepted as divine.( Buddhism isn’t doing that bad for itself and is more liked than Christianity by most, even if its often misunderstood). Maybe it would be better if we actually saw the human potentialities in Jesus as something accessible to us. Maybe seeing a more human aspect to his message would be useful in the scheme of religious history.

I think the church will grapple with this, as it has for centuries over Gods relationship to the trinity, and many other existential questions. Its’s been challenged by science, the enlightenment, academia, literary criticism and so on. Many branches couldn’t cope with it and closed the doors, developed fundamentalist outlooks and denied academic and scientific criticism. Other churches have tried to adapt to the realities but have been held back by various factions and groups inside their denominations. Issues such as racial intermarriage and the treatment of women and children damaged them in the 20th century. The reluctance to accept the nature of homosexuality, a changing world and the inability to develop refreshing and honest theologies is damaging them in the 21st.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

These are the issues Leigh that have been tackled; I'm just describing here those who have tackled them in one particular way and one that is close to mine.

Erika Baker said...

Thank you everyone!

And, Adrian, you have never received hostility from me. Only complete incomprehension and as I have always really liked you and absolutley loved your political analysis of church situations, I have always felt it would only be fair if I really tried to understand what you're saying.

I think with some of the answers given here today I might move a step further.

Erika Baker said...

why did you not approve my last comment here?

Anonymous said...


This is my first post here! I'm a Methodist with an interest in popular expressions of Christianity, as opposed to theology in the strict sense.


The only (self-identified) Unitarian I've ever met was Dutch, so there must be some Unitarians in the Netherlands. Or maybe this person was just giving herself a label that she thought I'd have heard of!


As for 'wanting to borrow Christian imagery', I think Brits, and probably all Europeans, do this. 'Christian' is a comforting shorthand to indicate that you belong, that your heritage and culture are rooted here. It doesn't have to indicate a particular theological position. Enjoying choral music or visiting cathedrals makes you a 'Christian', simply because it's part of your heritage, regardless of actual belief...

I'm not convinced that 'cultural Christianity' and a broad-brushed appreciation of Jesus as a good man like other good men will do much to get people into church, though. Maybe it works in a clubby culture like the USA, but few British people will see the point. It doesn't seem particularly necessary.