Monday, 5 September 2016

David Jenkins: You Are Appreciated

Bishop David Jenkins came to public view about the time I was getting interested in Christianity and started riding two horses - the Church of England and the Unitarians. I warmed to him and his expressions, as clearly he illustrated a 'problem with the historical details' and yet expressed a construction of faith and belief, the difference between all the details and what were the essentials to be Christian. I didn't fully achieve affirming those essentials, so secondly he had a generosity towards people like me although clearly he met those essentials and I was somewhere in the borderlands. Early on I knew he was different from the John A. T. Robinson approach, and what seemed obvious was that Jenkins was being criticised in public and from within the Church of England for being a lot less investigatory than Robinson. It seemed to me that every twenty years or so controversy raged as what was well-known to theologians hit the public sphere, and what was the real cause of controversy was that people like Robinson and Jenkins let the theological cat out of the bag.

Nowadays the controversy is even more limited. It is centred around sexuality, as if this now defines 'orthodoxy', when it doesn't, and how one bishop presently, Nicholas Chamberlain, says he is gay, and with a partner, and while out of public notice has thus 'got through' to being a bishop, whereas Jeffrey John was widely known as gay before becoming a bishop and so didn't. Indeed, having got through stage 1, Chamberlain now acts within and supports certain guidelines of celibacy, we are told, which makes you wonder how much is celibate when one partner comforts the other. It's all so bloody stupid, but this is the pathetic level of controversy these days. I met the previous Bishop of Grantham, who clearly liked to be seen as a bit trendy and with it, so presumably this appointment was into that space, but it shows just how restricted things are.

As for those theological issues, I have learnt more as time has gone along. Jenkins, I discovered, was of a line of theology that ended up in the secular theology of Harvey Cox (well, as in the 1960s). God was God, and revealed, and in Christ, and Barth and Bonhoeffer had defined that stream into the post-war. Later on I would add Bultmann, with this notion of kerygma being a Gospel drive or impact out of the text and somewhat beyond history. This was contrasted with John Robinson, who, whilst he included Bonhoeffer and less so Bultmann, seemed to me to be more of Tillich and asking questions, whereas Jenkins' participant stream was getting on with the rough and tumble of secular life and what was 'the Gospel' for it (and so on). Later still I realised that Robinson in fact did not like Tillichian systematic theology, but something more personalist, and of course found in the Christian Bible an open narrative of a personal, suffering God (and so on).

Central to this is the long established problem of history, and what constitutes historical evidence, and the fact that the Gospels are secondary evidence from the faith stance of early Christians in their diversity of outlook. Troeltsch and Harnack are important here. There is also the issue of communal rapid story telling and tradition-making - taking inherited terms and applying new insights - in what was a charismatic excitement of end times expectation dealing with Jewish and Gentile concepts. A faith of Jesus towards God in the end time becomes one that has Jesus with a central role to bring the end - wrapped up in rearranged resurrection narratives and quickly becoming the Messiah and Christ.

Jenkins' position was incredibly traditional and orthodox because of how he saw the modern problem of not believing within our cultural outlook - the same problem of Robinson's "But that I can't believe". Jenkins view was not that we have it about right with science and naturalism, and so therefore supernatural and magical views were cultural spectacles for all these foundation faith concepts going through the mill, but that God had actually then given the means to understand the Gospel outbreaking in that era of belief, also held through most of Church tradition, and surely God would now give us such means to faith and would not leave us without the means to believe the Gospel... In other words, he wasn't being naturalistic like a Don Cupitt, or relativistic like a Don Cupitt (yes, the confusion is there within Cupitt!), but that there is a God who did reveal then, did reveal later, and surely would reveal now. Surely, says Jenkins, the Holy Spirit has not ceased to be active. And given that God does not let us down, how can we open out the Gospel now with the understandings functional in our own time of cultural developments.

Thus, and here we are: real humans are not born of virgins, and being born of a virgin is a story about a high prophetic chosen individual, and for him Christ was and must be a real human, and so there is a story of his virginal birth but there is no access to the history or biology. God clearly arranged the story in revelation for those believers when the two referring Gospels were written, but he would not think God actually did arrange a virginal conception - and, if he did, how are we to know? Secondly, resurrection given as the conceptual framework for understanding God working through a Jesus into a transformed state, had to be 'more than a conjouring trick with bones'. Again history is a problem, but whatever history can be gleaned, as with the virgin birth, it all has to be kerygmatic faith and purpose.

But in 1984 there was a tick-box mentality to Christianity. The BBC Heart of the Matter treated Sea of Faith in a tick-box manner. The creeds of course encourage the tick-box approach in our culture. The text of orthodoxy was ticking all the requirements down the credal list. That was not Jenkins' approach. He didn't particularly 'start from the other end' as Robinson would have it, but started from the revelation that God was God and acted in history, but history was a problem and insufficient, as God acted with revelatory purpose. The Bible has clearly assisted belief in the past, and has all sorts of content, but what it is not is a diary of prophet or a book of biology about his parent/s.

But this is too complicated for a mass media that works on dropping people from a height, and dealing in the the tick-box and, more so, whether an establishment figure is 'unhinged' or not, defined by not upholding the interests of the status quo. Jenkins of course did not, because that revelatory impact in his own bones had a social gospel outcome that had to be pursued. And he was up against Margaret Thatcher, who thought that the man helping the Samaritan first of all had to be a greedy sod to fill up his own wallet. Jenkins knew the value of communities, whereas Thatcher said there was no such thing as society.

So R I P David Jenkins, who was around making waves when I was by the sea. His context was coming after The Myth of God Incarnate (he'd have considered much of it a distraction, I would think), and Christian Believing (that diverse Doctrine Commission stuff), and 1984 on was about the time of the rowing-back of later Doctrine Commissions (until they were scrapped). Like Barth had considered, the Church was just showing its corruption, and was frustrating, but also the Church operating in a corrupted society. The corruption has gone on, and now there is little place for a theology professor prepared to ask the questions; theologians have to be more narrowly evangelical in the surface sense these days in the institution becoming ever more sectarian and distant from the culture that Jenkins realises forces the questions (or, he'd have it, asks questions of God giving the means to come to faith).

Unlike Jenkins, I don't believe in a specific incarnation and resurrection. There would be people like me who would say they are still 'Christian' and Jenkins would be generous because they are displaying an intention of faith and association with the unfolding Christian community down the ages. He would want to engage them, convince them, but via the questions. It cannot be forced. I just think that the 'more than' the conjouring trick
is separable and that conjouring tricks are things that people see and believe and that how people interpret isn't of itself reliably what happens. And it gets lost in a fog anyway, the impenetrable that means religion is a lot freer and creative and broader than trying to construe some 'evidence' that there is one central religion, when there is not.

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