Saturday 9 December 2023

Basic Liberal Religious Position


I came into religion through the liberal route, starting with sociology of religion research that showed the unawareness of theology by churchgoers, and that this was deliberate. Those intending for ministry learnt liberal Christian theology and then in general went on to ignore it as they went into pastoral ministry.

I was told by one Methodist minister that Honest to God from 1962 by Bishop J A T Robinson was "old hat" but then too dangerous to introduce. He was minister of one of the groups I studied using participant observation. I found a liberal Methodist minister to interview. He recommended I read Hans Kùng's 1973 brick called On Being a Christian and indeed I acquired my own copy. Kùng is an ecumenically-minded marginalised Roman Catholic theologian.

My background was as an agnostic encountering the University of Essex chaplaincy in 1982. It's chaplain went on to be known for his Animal Theology and less so for his interesting treatment of Karl Barth - had he focussed on The Spirit as he had on Christ. His daughter Clair grew up to be a chip off the block as she promotes Animal Theology on liberation, ecological, and contextual theologies and her theologian of choice (comparative disappointment) was liberationist Leonardo Boff. Both father and daughter assume a trinitarian theology but run the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics concerning sentient animals on a multi-faiths basis.

Today's theological language has narrowed, so that people like the Linzeys, Colin Coward and even myself are counted as 'Progressive' despite huge differences between us. I would not count as Christian despite sharing many concerns and some methods of Christian progressives. I'm looking for a religious humanist theology, one that does extend to sentient animals.

Too much of revisionism is based on opposing literalists of the Bible. I don't really care about them. They are easy targets. So many American Deconstructionists come from one-time fundamentalists who've become secular and saddled with personal burdens of history. This has never been true for me. I'm more interested in why so few take on the likes of Rowan Williams and their sophisticated mythology. I recall Rowan Williams telling disc jockey Simon Mayo that the advent and Christian narratives are indeed historical, when Williams knew perfectly well that they are not. As Williams became Archbishop of Canterbury, the Virgin Birth increased in importance, whatever that meant. Williams gets so stuck in the detail that he forgets the detail of tradition is not the same as historical; it has historical expression but does not have an historical basis. In other words, he deals in lies rather than truths. I bought Williams's recent Looking East in Winter and read his methodology of getting stuck into comparative obscurity, as if being obscure passes a test of credibility. Well, it does not. Rules of communicating still apply and a purpose of writing and speaking is to be understood.

I'm as capable of doing Christian theology as anyone else. My preferred route is the more historical. The whole nativity matter is about when Jesus is apparently God acquiring humanity or a human becoming God. Some said or say it is at his resurrection, others that it was at his baptism by John, others at his birth, and then they are supposed to maintain that Christ was eternally divine (although John's Gospel refers to the beginning - this is not quite the same thing).

John's Gospel is most explicit that Jesus had divinity, with all of the 'I Am' statements, although there are also God the Father only type statements. As for the other Synoptic Gospels, the most 'divine' is arguably Mark where others failed to understand Jesus's mission. However, Mark's possible divinity and Jesus as Messiah is in the context of a coming new reality that would eject Roman rule in place of the Son of Man, the King of the Jews, establishing the twelve tribes of Israel and the Kingdom of God within which even Gentiles would experience the benefits.

This is the important part: Jesus is not simply some ethical teacher and healer, even if this is all that can be extracted from him by today's sociology of knowledge: he was a supernaturalist and holder of eschatological beliefs we would find strange to hear.

Thus I do not follow Jesus, and see no reason to extract ethical beliefs from him in particular. I see the point of a life lived, and Jesus does it well, but the result here is a kind of league table without the necessary evidence. Where does Gandhi go, and what about Baha'u'llah of the Baha'is (as one digs down into a group that likes to control its own history inside its own vaults and rules of publishing). Where is the evidence of the dharma result of the Buddha's Middle Way?

Like Colin Coward I revise the ontological essence of God, God as ultimate being. I'm aware that this God my way is so high and so thin it barely exists at all. Much are signals of transcendence rather than transcendence itself - the quality of art, the beauty of equations. I can also use the language of Holy Spirit in the sense of this thin God doing things. I'm not a deist, not really, but I beware of anything beyond evolution's own cruel processes of adding complexity to life on earth.

I ally with those Christians wanting equality and justice. It's a better life. It's fairly simple stuff, this.

In a serious behavioural way (attending, getting involved less or more) I have mixed with Methodists, Anglicans, Quakers, Western Buddhists and Baha'is. However, the main group has been Unitarians.

Let us be clear. The Unitarians are at a point of history where they are pretty much defunct. This means there are some congregations where they are actually doing well. There are paid  ministers. There is still, just about, a General Assembly structure. But its numbers are so low (two and a half thousand in Great Britain) that it has had it. Locally, and like many, I fell out with the minister here, and the local congregation was wrecked by 'the man with a plan' and a bureaucrat with documents. It has hobbled on since with a handful, if that, with much more money  than people, but the Methodists would have closed it down decades back. It went downwards when I was in it, and I observed no agreement over definitions local or national. There was no point or purpose, other than a choice of existence, for a creedless gathering for doing religion. Yes, there was a Puritan-Presbyterian communal memory, a long shadow, and all its developments institutionally embedded, and my experienced minister-led example showed a pathetic lack of substance in the New Age material.

Thus I remain fairly central in how I draw in material for being religious. Oddly, I'm less likely to be Buddhist, less likely to be purely secularist, but I am very marginal in religion. I give more attention to the left wing of the Reformation and East Europe as a place of early toleration. i am more religious than spiritual, still.

I am interested in the effects of Romanticism over rationality: rationality alone cannot exist in religion. Some tradition is invented but others are tramlines so far. Some confined theology, teaching and practice that enshrine prejudice, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia and racism put me off associating with institutions of religion. Evangelical theology is pointless; radical Orthodoxy is an exercise in being uncommunicative. Creating a postmodern space for premodern content is another form of indulgence, a religious masturbation.

I'm inactive. Resting is preferable. I'd still join with those who are part of today's sociology of knowledge. We think today along the lines of expecting technology to solve problems. Maths is pure thought but crucial as applied, followed by experimental physics, chemistry and biology, by deductive social science in Economics, politics and sociology, and inductive social anthropology, and then inductive but evidence-rules history, and on to the subjective arts like painting and creative writing. Religion should be less supernatural and slot into these ways of thinking and behaving.

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