On inhabiting our energising paradox

On a day when our church is to hold its AGM it makes sense to spend a little time considering our institution, its foundation and its nature. By a happy coincidence, which may also be thought of as a gift of grace, during the week I was reading something Jacques Derrida said about institutions in general that seems to me to be helpful in understanding what a church, institutionally speaking, such as this is.

In the Summer of 1996 Derrida was speaking at a roundtable discussion at Villanova University in Pennsylvania to inaugurate their new doctoral program in philosophy. He said:

"The paradox in the instituting moment of an institution is that, at the same time as it starts something new, it also continues something, is true to the memory of the past, to a heritage, to something we receive from the past, from our predecessors, from the culture. If an institution is to be an institution, it must to some extent break with the past, keep the memory of the past, while inaugurating something absolutely new" (John D. Caputo (ed.), Deconstruction in a Nutshell: Conversation with Jacques Derrida, Fordham University Press, 1996, p. 6).

In expressing this his desire was that institutions should be open to their own future as that particular, distinct institution and not another.

We'll come to our own openness to the future later on but firstly, taking Derrida's words as a starting point what was our own community's inaugurating moment? Clearly the first is the "event that transpired in Jesus and which knocked Paul off his horse and delivered a shock to the world" (cf. John D. Caputo in "After the Death of God" p. 82). This event founded the whole complex tradition of institutions that collectively became known as the Christian church. Although this Church was in its first blooming a radically plural institution once a form of Christianity was adopted by Constantine the realities of empire slowly allowed for the development of an increasingly dominant force within it, i.e. that which was centred upon Rome and the Popes.

As we know by the sixteenth century this power had become problematic in all kinds of ways and the general protest against it, the Reformation, was what led to what we might more meaningfully be called our particular moment of institutional foundation. The event, which occurred on June 10, 1565 in the Polish town of Brzeziny, was the calling of the first synod of the "Minor Reformed Church of Poland", better known today by the name of the Polish Brethren. The synod was convened after Peter Gonesius (Piotr of Goniądz) had spoken out against the doctrine of the Trinity during the general synod of the Reformed (Calvinist) churches of Poland held in Secemin in January (22) of the same year. As disagreement which revealed the need for the articulation of an alternative institutional voice. (An valuable short introduction to this community can be found in Racovia by Phillip Hewett.)

Returning to Derrida's words we can see that in their synod the Polish Brethren inaugurated something absolutely new and unexpected. In questioning the doctrine of the Trinity they inaugurated something of much more general importance than the challenging of a single doctrine, namely, the right to question what had become for their culture unquestioned theological answers and to go on to suggest alternative answers born out of other legitimate readings of their foundational text - the Bible. They knew - first hand I might add - that asserting this right was dangerous because it opened the door to real difference and threatened the status quo. It made them not just heretics but really major heretics. In the picture at the top of this post you will see that their first great theologian, Faustus Socinus is derided as "magnus hæreticus"! In consequence the Polish Brethren also began to develop the equally radical new idea of religious tolerance both for their own views and those of others. For them this assertion came to it's first full flowering in some words found in their catechism of 1605 - the Racovian Catechism. I print these words each week on our own order of service:

"Whilst we declare our own opinions, we oppress no one. Let every person enjoy the freedom of their own judgement in religion; only let it be permitted to us also to exhibit our view of divine things, without injuring and calumniating others."

Yet, for all this breaking in of the new, they were also absolutely clear about their desire to be true to a tradition and to a memory of the past that they found expressed most succinctly in the Biblical text. They may have been radicals but make no mistake about it, they understood themselves to be continuing something important.

Consequently, we can see that our foundation as an institution is exactly the kind paradox of which Derrida spoke. On the one hand out of a memory of the past - especially by attempting better to follow the radical example of Jesus and we formed an actual, extant Christian community with deep roots in past stories and practices. On the other hand, we also consciously opened ourselves up, not only to the right of differing viewpoints to exist, but also to the idea that these same viewpoints should to be taken seriously and, wherever possible, engaged with - especially in the public, civic sphere. In this we helped give birth to the modern idea of toleration and civil and religious liberty.

By the eighteenth century our community's overall attitude was perhaps no better nor more succinctly summed up than by the English Unitarian minister and chemist Joseph Priestley, who said:

"But should free inquiry lead to the destruction of Christianity itself, it ought not, on that account, to be discontinued; for we can only wish for the prevalence of Christianity on the supposition of its being true; and if it fall before the influence of free inquiry, it can only do so in consequence of its not being true" (Joseph Priestley, 'The Importance and Extent of Free Inquiry in Matters of Religion: A Sermon, in P.Miller (ed.), Joseph Priestley: Political Writings, Cambridge: CUP, 1993, p. xxiv).

Here we see developing a kind of faith that was no longer understanding itself as being an ideology we could ever know was absolutely true but was instead something that remained radically open towards its future, something that would at a certain level always be a possible object, or a possible system of claims about the world whose truth could only be determined by a living commitment to, and participation in, an ongoing and genuinely open-ended conversation with the whole of society and the whole range of human knowledge.

One of the key pieces of new knowledge that has broken over our horizon of being since Priestley's time and which I need to note here, because it makes such a significant difference for us today, is that we can now see that the way we use language in religion is not the way we use language in the natural sciences. Also, that what truth is, and how and for what purpose it is used, is understood differently in the religious context to the way it is understood in the natural sciences. For our tradition science and religion are complimentary human endeavours.

It seems to me that it is only when this paradox - between a real Christian rootedness and a genuinely radical openness to difference - is consciously kept alive at the very heart of our community that today we have any hope of continuing to access and release our tradition's liberal and radical energy.

The problem is that at this time in our history there are many people (both within and outside our particular institution and tradition) who would like to collapse this always difficult paradox to a singularity, to one side or the other. On the one hand there are those who would like us to land definitively on the side of our inherited Christian tradition and to claim that only on its shore will it be possible to build an effective liberal religious institution which can move us into our true future. On the other hand there are those who would like us to land definitely on the side of open-ended change and to insist that we must let go of our distinctive traditions and roots and move into an undiffentiated pluralistic landscape. For such people only this approach will move us into our true future. But either of these moves, if and when acted on, as they sometimes are, cuts dangerously against our community's own unique way of being and effectively destroys the paradox which is nothing less than the very source or engine of our liberalism and openness.

Jesus' parable of the wheat and tares (Matthew 13:24-30) is a good illustration of this tension, this paradox, at work in the world. (This parable has been used many times by those who are pushing for religious toleration.) On the one hand we have a duty and a calling, a history as farmers of a particular crop and not another, to sow what is for us our good wheat - in other words to sow our tradition. This wheat is what we feel best sustains us and our community and so, of course, we sow - we'd be foolhardy not to. Yet, even as we sow we know that there are other forces in the world that seemingly cut against our own way of being in a fashion that they can at times make them seem as if they were our enemies. They, too, are sowing in the world, the same world as the one in which we sow. From time immemorial the temptation on all sides has been to tear out the other's crop and the aim of those who desire power has everywhere and always been to develop a monoculture free from what they believe to be weeds. But the radical event that transpired in Jesus and so also in our tradition - an event which cuts against all strong impositional power structures - says "No!" to this. Our event says to us, sow your good wheat but for your own crop's good you must let the tares grow too. Our event says leave to the future what future generations, what God, will choose to be gathered up and kept and what will be thrown away and burnt as chaff - we are simply to let them grow together. And so we learnt to say, mean and act upon our words that "Whilst we declare our own opinions, we oppress no one. Let every person enjoy the freedom of their own judgement in religion."

Such a highly unusual, unique even, religious tradition is a hard way to follow - it is a veritably narrow way and has never been popular - but it is a way of being which has played a vital role in the gifting to our world the idea and actuality of religious and civil liberty. An idea and actuality that, I might add, is increasingly being threatened around the world and at home by those who desire single, monocultural, solutions.

On this important day in our institution's life it behoves us to recognise and reaffirm the energising paradox that grounds our liberalism and makes us the unique kind of liberal community we are. But as we do this we must also remain constantly on the alert for those who, in sheep's clothing, would wish to collapse our paradox to nothing. We must be alert to this because whenever we are so tempted we begin ourselves to walk a broad and destructive way towards a monoculture which will not only close down our own future but also the future of the other diverse religious and civil traditions we see around us.

For the benefit of both the wheat and tares I urge us to continue to inhabit, deeply, our energising paradox.