More painful consequences of those splinters . . .

If you are coming to this blog for the first time or haven't read the address HERE then it is worth doing so first otherwise what follows won't make the best sense it could. Even then it's just a quick, although I hope, considered reply to stuff I'm working through. It's an interim response and needs to be taken that way Right . . .

This last address/blog attracted some of the most positive responses after the service to any I have ever given - surprising, given the subject matter. I also received a few replies to the blog posting and a couple of them deserve replies which I offer here.

I'll start with the negative, but ultimately helpful (to me at least) criticism from an anonymous reader (don't be shy) who wrote:

"Christian atheism? What an absolute contradiction in terms. If your belief in God is so reduced, how do you justify retaining the title of Minister of a (historically Christian) church? There's being a liberal Christian and then there comes a point when you are being something else. And observers wonder why Unitarianism has lost its way?"

Well, the reason for this description (that deliberately uses the surprising conjunction of terms to provoke thought) is that this way of thinking is born out of a particular faith context (i.e. Christianity) by people who find it hugely valuable and something they would, on balance, like to see survive and flourish in the world rather than be lost. So it's not just some abstract, deracinated intellectualised atheism (like much of the current atheism) but one prompted by Christians who take their story seriously but who also acknowledge that it is continuing to come into ever greater tension with what we think the discoveries made by the natural sciences are telling us about the world. In key areas the natural sciences seem to have trumped certain claims of Christianity, one of which is the objective existence of God, another being the veracity of the resurrection. What choice does one have if the results of the natural sciences are, broadly, accepted and yet one still desires to remain loyal to Jesus?

Anyway, the basic point is that it is an atheistic position rooted in a person's highly valued Christian practices and stories. Jesus life - especially since it ended with those words recorded in Mark "my God, my God why hast thou forsaken me?" (Mark 15:34 and Matthew 27:46) - seems to demand from us a reflection on the loss of God to us. The resurrection stories were one way of dealing with this loss. But, for the Christian atheist - who has to take these stories seriously too - the natural sciences suggest (and pretty much prove in this case) that the resurrection of the dead is just vanishingly unlikely to be true. The philosophy of Wittgenstein (especially post-1953 with the publication of the Philosophical Investigations his second great work) was a huge influence on Christian atheists because it helped show why, although Gospels can say nothing about the world, they can show us something about how to live in this complex world. (In a way one can trace Wittgenstein's thinking here back to Tolstoy's "Confession" - but that's another story). We can regain the resurrection stories - even when they no longer tell us anything true about the world - when we see that they show us something true about the world.

So, as one's belief that the Gospels tell us anything about the world disappears, there can return a faith that the Gospels show us how to live in the world returns. One looses a metaphysics of the cross but gains a profound physical return to the physical, wholly natural world - to the physical quality of the cross - hence the title of my piece. I justify continuing to call myself a Christian minister because I still take what the story shows us seriously enough to get splinters in my hand - to be a Christian is not, to me, at all connected with a theoretical, abstract metaphysical set of beliefs. In that sense what I am doing is wholly continuous with the historic Christian church even though clearly it is not be identical with it. If, however, belief is thought to be a sine qua none of being a Christian then, clearly I am not one; if, however, it is faith that the Christian narrative shows us how to live by following that showing - then I'm a Christian. What else would it make sense to call me?

Interestingly - to move to 'Anons' final question about Unitarianism having lost its way - the way of thinking explored very briefly in my address/blog is an train of thought which primarily came out of orthodox Christianity and in my piece I cite two key figures in that movement, namely, Bonhoeffer (a Lutheran pastor and modern saint to many Christian denominations) and van Buren (an Episcopalian priest). It seems unlikely that Christian atheism could ever have come from Unitarianism (at least in its more modern forms) because collectively it doesn't really doesn't 'do' Christianity (or any other extant religion) with enough single-minded passion to even consider making such a move in the first place.

This latter point brings me to Yewtree's request to address one of my own points directly. Here is that point again:

"There is also a good and strong reason for engaging in this kind of ecumenical gathering – despite my disbelief – that does not, alas, exist with regard to engagement with the current institutional structures of the British Unitarian movement, one of whose ministers I, nominally at least, am."

Whenever I engage with Christians in ecumenical gatherings such as the Good Friday 'Act of Witness' I am aware that (for the most part) I am meeting people who take their faith and its consequent practice with the utmost seriousness (and not without humour either). One engages in encounters that have real bite - there is something to talk about that matters and which expresses, to borrow Paul Tillich's term, their ultimate concern.

In liberal circles, however, because there is so often such a huge, sceptical gap between any theory 'about the world' a person may hold and that same person's instantiated 'way of being' in the world one quickly encounters an almost impassable barrier set up in the way of real encounter because nothing is presented upon which one can get any real traction; rubber never hits the road. Everything substantive - in faith terms - is lost in innumerable caveats and equivocations. Having inhabited such liberal circles for many years I know this intimately and this current address is simply part of a long term attempt to find a way for liberals of Christian inclination to close that sceptical gap and, to jump to the other image used above, to get the rubber of our own wheels back on the road. If it helps get any other liberals' wheels back on the road (whether in a Christian or another context) all the better.

(In passing I do wish to note that within liberal circles there are individuals whose rubber absolutely hits the road - you know who you are - but because there has been no COLLECTIVE institutional debate in the UK about how and why (and even IF) the rubber of liberal, pluralistic religious community can hit the road, the present institutional structures of British Unitarianism simply cannot be engaged with in any satisfactory fashion. In my opinion it is why fewer and fewer people are joining it and why it is continuing to haemorrhage members in alarming numbers.)

So, yes, I think I am an atheist and it is my 'theory about the world' (and it's a pretty good one based as it is upon the natural sciences which seem to have revealed, and continue to reveal, real things about the world). This theory has been shown to connect meaningfully with the real world - the natural sciences have shown us how to be in the world in a remarkably tangible successful way - though this has, of course, also thrown up its own problems. In short I can say that I believe, not in God, but in the natural world (revealed by the natural sciences - and also thinkers such as Epicurus and Lucretius). But, as I say and live this faith I also feel, to remake the point Wittgenstein makes in his Tractatus: " . . . that even if all possible scientific questions be answered, the problems of life still have not been touched at all. Of course, there is then no question left, and just this is the answer" (§6.52).

One solution to these problems of life still seem to me to be found in following Jesus, in being in some way a Christian, and this is another aspect of my 'way of being in the world'. This religious way is wholly unchosen by me (it comes by the utterly contingent set of conditions that threw me into this time, place and culture - that pressed me into service to carry the cross) and, although it is one I often wish I could abandon it just keeps claiming me. Even as daily I say to myself, "my God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me", that damned cross keeps putting splinters in my fingers and calling me back into a damnably inconvenient discipleship of Jesus. Well, God may have 'forsaken' us (or rather a certain idea of God has forsaken us) - or to cite Bonhoeffer again, the God who is with us is the God who forsakes us (Mark 15:34)! We stand continually in the presence of God who makes us live in the world without the God-hypothesis - but I do have a profound faith that Nature hasn't and, indeed can't, nor has the example of Jesus.

Not sure I've said all this well enough but it's time to press that 'publish post' button and be damned . . .