Wednesday 23 January 2013

Sermon to Come

Below is the sermon I plan to give on Sunday. I am also writing two short liturgical pieces to fit the service based around Imbolc, one to the past, present and future and the other around the mythic Four Elements. The prayers are new, the chalice lighting is imported and I have one reading as suggested. The following is subject to editing and ad-libbing on the day.

If you are accused of something you can plead not guilty, enter a defence, and see if you are found guilty or not guilty. If you say you are guilty, that is more or less it, other than for any mitigating circumstances. Or you might come clean and even ask for other related crimes to be taken into consideration.

Very recently I was accused and have been forced to make a plea. I decided to plead guilty as charged and although I can therefore make no defence I can provide an explanation by the way of, well, admitting that I have done it before.

I have been accused of being a Pretend Pagan. I plead guilty, because it is true, but if I have an explanation it is that I have done this crime at least twice if not more often.

A pretend Pagan doesn't really believe it. Doesn't really believe in the gods and godesses or the magical powers that derive out of the cycles of nature. There is no real immersion into the Pagan world, but basically it is being used as a vehicle of expression by someone who believes in, well, frankly, something else.

Now the accusation is all the more targeted because even the real, immersed Pagan is aware that the religion is full of one's imagination and creativity, and that the gods and godesses can be imagined representatives of magical forces. But magical forces there are, says the real Pagan, and one of the oldest transmitters of magical information is, of course, astrology. Astrology is virtually a science to some Pagans, because it deals in cause and effect: that who we are is linked to the motions of planetary bodies.

As someone who takes the view that a midwife exerts more gravitational force than even the nearest planet, and that there is no causality in Astrology, I have to plead guilty. And, as some of you know, my answer to Bill Darlison's questions about pure probability in our life narratives is to come back to him to discuss the whole point about probability and the moral consequences of magical causality.

The Postmodern Pagan Miriam Simos or Starhawk is a true believer, but she also pushes the Pagan cause into the academic world, and in so doing has had a great deal to offer about the Pagan as liturgy and about using it as a means to understand your life-narrative. She understands the connection between play and playfulness, liturgy, drama and re-enactment. For people like her, the Pagan view is the best way to connect self and all that is around us. She has been able to meet up and match with the likes of Matthew Fox, the ex-Roman Catholic and now Episcopalian, with his view of Original Blessing over Original Sin. Again, it is about having a positive life story.

So I want to plead guilty and I have done it before. See, I was once a Pretend Christian, but they were called Postmodern or Postliberal Christians.

One route to postmodern Christianity was via our own James Martineau. James Martineau was a reviser of liturgies, a liturgical poet who took a generalised Christianity as a collective liturgy but said everyone must be their own religious conscience - not the Bible, not the liturgy, but their own stance. Such extreme subjectivity collapses a collective and one time objective liturgy into something that is postmodern. The language is like a set of guideposts for the group, but no more than that, as each person has their own selections of beliefs. That is an open, liberal, postmodernity, and the whole reason for its existence is the dissonance between received religious tradition and modern understandings of what causes things to happen.

Set against this is a more conservative approach to being postmodern. As with the Calvinists, our very own forebears in the 17th century, if yiou believe in revelation then religious truth is all one way. If you regard the world, its culture, and its human-made institutions as corrupt, then you might have the view that there is no truth to be deposited in the world as we know it. Rather the truth is in not the science in the Bible, not the history that might be in the Bible, but in the biblical encounter itself. It is your faith and its faith in its text, and the same encounter is true in the language of doing worship. Put that into today's terms, and it means that such religious encounter is rootless. It is Plato and perfection, and indeed the more Catholic Church-version of this emphasises Plato. It is definitely not of Aristotle, who wanted truth grounded in the very stuff we live amongst. Whether it is George Lindbeck's Protestant postliberalism, or John Milbank and company's Anglo-Catholic Radical Orthodoxy, the whole tradition becomes a matter of performance, and of identity, not of proof. There is no proof to be had in following Christianity, according to that line of postmodern thinking.

So over the river some years ago I was a communicant Anglican on a liberal postmodern basis, but realised that I was sending out all the wrong signals. I wasn't a very good postmodern Christian, because my liberalism was so selective, and wasn't very good at doing the narrative thing. The priest-in-charge, as was, now with the freehold, was very much better at 'doing the whole tradition'. He was not a liberal, but he was postmodern in many respects. A number of professional Christians and theologians are like this: they live in the real world when it comes to explanations, such as say the biology of Richard Dawkins and the astronomy of Brian Cox, but they live in a kind of museum world when it comes to doing religion, because the museum artifacts still deliver a spirituality. The reason one chooses one spiritual package over another then becomes, again, that connection between liturgy, play, playfulness and re-enactment - which is the best playtime or drama for you?

The problem of liberals, well understood by James Martineau, is that we too raid the museum for our religious language, from within our inherited culture, but liberals are more selective than taking whole packages. I still do shop and select my religious artefacts. And I can do it with Paganism. After all, Paganism is our culture too. Quite a few Pagans in the Unitarian and Unitarian Universalist camp are postmodern Pagans, otherwise they would be in the Pagan groups proper. Some of them, though, are also in the Pagan groups proper either as postmoderns or as inhabiters of a magical world. They do the Unitarian thing as well because Paganism is expansive and they also like the contact with the humanists and the Buddhists and the Christians.

Whereas, someone like myself is much more part of a raiding party, even a fraud. In fact, I have dropped a lot of the postmodern fluff because I believe in research. Research is a good way to find out what is true and what isn't, and language is not the be all and end all of expressing working truths. But language still functions when considering religion as art, and when I consider religion as art I am going to paint on the broadest canvas possible and find as many styles as I can. So watch out Pagans because I am on a raiding party, to nick some of your stuff and make it liturgical.

I'm guilty as charged and I've done it before.

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