Wednesday 20 November 2013

Fake Lecture

This is the pre-edited lecture going into my novel, given by the Right Reverend Derek Imperial, diocesan Bishop of Foss, a diocese identifed as dysfunctional and subject to a report by a working party:

There was no alternative, it was made clear: all clergy and spouses should be present at the Bishop of Foss's lecture. This obviously proved a problem for me and I could not persuade Keith to do this, a final duty. Adam didn't want to go but Peter said he would. At least it was not an empty seat. He was a lively passenger, and getting on with Kathryn very well. Why her and not Kathleen? Well, both, but Kathryn was showing interest in him.
    The lecture was not given at the Cathderal but at the University of Foss, a series of buildings all circling around a long lake and a railway station just opened along with a few others to perform mass transit on four routes from St. Matthews' Station. All we had to do now was campaign for the extension to get a rail link to Serpensea. Instead I drove to one of the university's car parks. The park and ride at the new station on the bypass was for daytime only.
    The lecture was entitled Christianity as Movement: A Linguistic and Body Approach. The Bishop of Scredington, Julian Worsley, sat on one said of Derek Imperial while John Barman, our Bishop of Bolingbroke, sat on the other side. And it wasn't properly a Church do?
    There was a lot of tedious "What I am going to say" and "What I have said was" that frustrates me. Just say it, and say it clearly enough. Say it once, but say it well.
    Christianity is nothing if not bodily, said Derke Imperial, centred around a divine-human person and a body of a Church seen to be embodied by that divine-human person. "But that is simply to say the matter formally, and is rather like the headlines."
    Fair enough, I thought. The mind is of the body and the mind makes sense through symbol, and symbol is embodied in ritual and ritual involves movement. At the heart of this is language, language by the widest definition, however.
    He went into several theories of language origin among humans, including the bow wow type theory, which is the discredited noise like the noise view, to a newer one that langauge has come from the ability to appreciate music and to represent things artistically. These were fundamental symbolic appreciation methods and about mapping the environment with more than just application talk.
    But he did wonder about this theory. He has a pet dog.
    "I can now say 'walkies' in any tone of voice and the result is the dog will jump up, gets it lead and wants to walk. It is excited. I don't need to cry walkies as I once did. Nor do I over-express it's time for your teeeee. Saying it is teatime even is enough for the mutt to go mad around his bowl."
    The point was his dog ignored all music. It had no necessity to its life. On the other hand, the dog had no grammar, no construction of sentences and no symbolic extensions. "Whereas for us, dog has enormous and lengthening meanings, even to the present use of the word 'dogging' which, I am reliably informed, means having sex with strangers usually around a collection of cars in some lonely place."
    Peter found that quite funny, although others weren't sure if or how to laugh.
    "The fact is that since Ludwig Wittgenstein and William James, expression has made reality; we build reality in the mind from collective agreements of wordy expressions."
    The bishop told us that there are language games, and he thought they varied between maths and its attempt at symbolic precision, physics which did the same but had inventive names and expressions for particles discovered and assumed, chemistry also welded itself to substances and the periodic table, biology underpinned by the evolution narrative - "And it is a narrative," said our Christian leader.
    "Religion, then is perhaps the most expressive, the most subjective and very much like art," he said, "But we try to ground it by drawing on narratives of science and history, and not always very successfully. History is very disciplined about the primary document, no matter which school of historiography then uses them, as is archaeology also evidence - but sometimes expert - driven; and science is demanding about falsifiable experiments. I'm sorry to say that too often religion sweeps its way around these uses without taking their lessons seriously."
    "We have to maintain serious work on the Jesus of history, as it has been called, the rabbi Jew who gathered leaders symbolising the thwelve tribes of Israel, who perhaps preached a coming one that may or may not have been himself transformed. We have to examine scrupulously the Easter narratives, not just for their anti-semitism, for which our locality has a sad history, but for their reliability. Would Jesus ever have been sentenced by Jews for claiming to be a messiah? No, surely not, and my view is Pilate would have taken little interest in yet another trivial trouble maker come to town. You see the problem, in that our gospels are post-Easter narratives, and all that follows follows-on. Narrative is a historical method, of course, but narrative of primary documents is located in the Early Church."
    Peter looked at me wide-eyed. I said to him, "I know."
     "But where religion is especially grounded," he said, "is in the anthropology of bodily movement, the bodily movement which supports and underpins expression. Anthropology is very clear that people who come together and exchange bind themselves as one. It is true in sex, in the economy, in conversation, and it is fundamental to the Eucharist as both expression and movement. In sex together one finds the gift of love, in the economy one finds the gift of added value, in the talk we find the richness of conversation, and in the Eucharist we make the material effort and transfer tokens for a spiritual gift, and the tokens involve eating and drinking. The tokens are insignificant in themselves, though the Catholics say they embody in all reality the Lord himself. In a way they are right," he said.
    Peter said, "And in a way it's all talk and shuffling along."
    I replied, "Yeah."
    The bishop wanted to turn to Buddhism, he said, "Not because I am a Buddhist but because it acts on the edges of language."
    It was a kind of critique of his position. "The Buddhist does not want to talk, but empty the mind of all noise, from which are gained non-distractions and therefore an end to the sticky, messy, samsara that Christians call sin."
    I wondered. Really? Is samsara what Christians call sin?
    "But we notice there are texts to guide the activity, and symbolic body stances, and to be properly positioned in front of a statue of Buddha as if that is Buddha himself. There are of course mid-way conditions and states, such as, in some traditions, helpful deities, but unlike our God Buddhist deities are temporary and of our world. And then also, look at the sutras, where language is pushed to paradox. Nirvana and samsara become one. Presumably if you desire nirvana you are still in samsara. Is it not a case to be satisfied or live along with samsara is itself a kind of nirvana of attitude?"
    "The Western equivalents to this, though less 'real', are the postmodernists and poststructuralists who say that every binary end expression contains within it the other pole. There is no purity of expression, no binary finite position."
    I thought, goodbye Trinity, goodbye Unity, it's all contradicted within each and the other.
    "Here I want to have a crack at our scientists. I mean the Al Khalilis, the Dawkinses, the Coxes and the de Sautoys who are all over the television screens. Using history to explain science is to use a narrative story; to talk in terms of wonder is to be expressive, many of the terms of particles are suggestive, and television summaries use music to evoke responses. At any level science is expressive - but I won't go as far as some to try and suggest equivalence between the science method and the religious method. Religion really is expressive, religion really is like art. What I will say is be careful, because beyond the facts we have dependent narratives, and the facts about dark matter and dark energy are creating contradictory problems deep in the narrative. Whereas religion can maintain a tradition because it knows it is a story, science has to change its narrative when the facts falsify the story. When a scientist tells me this is the fact of the matter, I'm asking what part is a fact of the matter."
    "So language matters, but what religion does is overviews via movement, via ritual, via symbolising the symbolic. Yes art does that too, but we attach to it narratives like our own post-Easter interpretation. In that expression is our God, and in that expression is the most fundamental of overviews. We should not be suprised that it is grounded in anthropology, because God is embodied. God is embodied in movement and in symbol: God as they say was, in the beginning, the Word, and that is the brilliant insight of religion."
    Hang on, he hadn't finished.
    "Let me say religion. Of course I'm grounded in the grounding of Christianity. But the word and wisdom come from Judaism, and we see use of language and bodily expression in the submission to God in Islam, and we see what we have discussed in Buddhism, and of course Hinduism is nothing if not the narratives of Gods. So I have no intention here of being exclusive: religion is that symbolic insight of our symbolic selves, but in our case we have the post-Easter narrative of a real man and claimed deity, who actually moved bodily, and used words creatively and stories himself, and of a Church we know as his body extended into our symbolic oversight. Thank you very much."
    There was quite strong applause from the three hundred probably gathered. Peter said, "Given by an atheist."
    I said to Peter, "Go on, ask him a question."
    One question from someone was how did the bishop see more precision in Christian expression and the bishop said we were, as Christians, "as the postliberals say", bound to rules of performance so precision comes in the identification of a Christian people.
    "Go on Peter. Go on, go on, go on, go on," as Mrs Doyle might hav expressed it.
    Oh brilliant. His hand went up. John Barman himself pointed across and a microphone arrived.
    "Isn't this the emperor's not very new clothes? What are you wearing? At one time, the God sent his very Son and self to save adn redeem those who God knew would be saved and redeemed - yes? Now it is all expression and human movement and what comes out of our mouths and, you're saying, our legs and arms as well."
    The bishop' answer was staggering. "I think we cannot escape what the philosophers have said, what the psychologists and social anthropologists have found. And it is quite liberating, really, because it has huge interfaith implications. And there is a real dialogue with humanists too. But we Christians are saying something else too. We are saying that it is in the body, and we are the body people, we are the body religion. It's not a oneupmanship, it's an insight."
    "It's non-realist," said Peter. "Your God and doctrine has given up reality."
    "Oh no it's not," said the bishop. "It's left the question of the real open, like the Buddhists have the real and have it in paradox. It is grounded, grounded in several places, and maybe thanks to other disciplines, but we then make our expression about bodies and do it in movement. It is real, but an expressive real, nor is it a reductionism to language pure, but an expansion through symbolism wide. I don't doubt the difficulties regarding precise doctrines as direct descriptions, but what we can do is get into the detail of these descriptions and do history-like work upon them; nevertheless, these are always post-Easter descriptions and that is what makes the difference, I think."
    "Someone else," said our suffragan bishop.
    "Smoke and mirrors," said Peter to me.
    "Brilliant," I said to him. "The emperor's not so new clothes."
    "I get all this stuff online," said Peter. "I ought to come here to study but I can't and won't afford it."
    "Quite," I said. "Our shit governments devalue education."
    There were other questions of course, like someone asking about how to relate Wittgenstein and James, and another about paradox in the trinity that gained an answer I couldn't fathom because I don't think Derek Imperial knew what he was on about. The one that isn't one, the three that could be more, the subordination that cannot be accepted, human and limited but divine. It was surely very paradoxical to the point of being nonsensical. Someone asked whether his God was personalist, and the bishop said the God encounter was indeed in the I-Thou but he wasn't himself opposed to systematic theology. People were always getting Tillich wrong, he thought, though Tillich might have been confused himself.
    But someone always has to ask a variant on the question this time, "How do you regard the expressions of the virgin birth and bodily resurrection - are they just expressions?" Here we are again, with tick-box credal Christianity. But his reply didn't take the irony in the question but ignored it.
    "Virginal conception is of course a paradoxical expression at the heart of things. It has to be divine in the sense that it is impossible as human. It comes from several sources, and particularly grounded in the Greek translation of Hebrew scriptures and thus seen as prophetic, with virginity as significant expression regarding prophetic characters in all sorts of religious settings. The narrative story in its detail is then about the special uniqueness of this person as chosen which can be examined in the textual detail in a history-like and science-like manner without involving self-deception. As for resurrection, well, yes, it has to be bodily because we are bodily, thanks fortunately to the body beliefs of the Jews in burials at that time and place, and of course affirming the material body and not just some spiritual experience becoming an affirmation of the real, the actual, and the restoration of goodness in the real and actual over time due to human effort assisting the divine plan. Again we get the significance of the post-Easter faith by examining the details of the stories of the tomb and the appearances as if history-like and science-like, in other words taking the texts at face value and without losses, as could be (due to history and science), and so mining them all for the significance of say authority in the Church, proper ritual and the development not of unitarian or arian views but the fully rounded trinitarian account."
    I said to Peter, "Did you get that?"
    He said, "What he meant was they didn't actually happen."
    I drove us home and told Adam in my bed that his apprentice ought to be treasured. He was an apprentice who put the chief sorcerer in his place.

1 comment:

Gary Paul Gilbert said...

The position taken by the character of the Bishop of Foss makes sense in its refusal to collapse the language-game of religion into a debate about facts. Symbolism, like literature, need have no referent.

Gary Paul Gilbert