Even in a free faith we need stories, and Jesus still beckons

Matthew 7:28–29 in the new translation of the New Testament by David Bentley Hart (Yale University Press, 2017):

And it happened that, when Jesus completed these sayings [in the “Sermon on the Mount”], the crowd was astonished at his teaching; for he was teaching them like one possessing authority, and not like their scribes.” 

Matthew 21:1213 (NRSV):

Then Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. He said to them, “It is written,

‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’;
    but you are making it a den of robbers.”

From “Even in a free faith we need stories, and Jesus still beckons” an essay by Phillip Hewett in the British Unitarian and Free Christian denomination's paper The Inquirer (13th January 2018)

[One] major Unitarian change is . . . in large measure a reflection of the context within which the evolution has taken place. Seventy-five years ago that context was almost exclusively Christian. Both in Britain and in Canada one often heard the claim: ‘This is a Christian country’. Official forms asked you to enter your Christian name and your surname. The word ‘multiculturalism’ had not yet been coined. There was a long tradition of using ‘Unitarian’ simply as an adjective, the sub-heading of ‘The Inquirer’ announced it as ‘the organ of Unitarian Christianity and Free Religious Fellowship’. ‘Are Unitarians Christians?’ was a subject for perennial debate, with most mainstream Christians saying no and most Unitarians saying yes, each defining the terms to suit their own position. Change here has been obvious, with many Unitarians today feeling alienated from Christianity or even hostile to it.
          Where does this leave us? How do we define our identity? In the USA there was a great turning point in 1961 when the Unitarians merged with the Universalists to form a new religious body, and this was followed by two decades of sometimes frantic search for identity. It was eventually resolved by adoption of a covenant to affirm and promote Seven Principles, which are now venerated in the same way as mainstream Christians have venerated the Ten Commandments. But these principles were not seen as free-floating and detached from history, they were drawn from what was called a ‘living tradition’, although this was certainly a very broad definition of tradition. The usual metaphor for a tradition is that of a flowing stream, but in this case a trackless ocean would seem more appropriate, or even, more unkindly, a swamp.
          History shows no successful examples of religions based on disembodied principles, though there were attempts to devise some in the 18th and 19th centuries. All the great religions are built around persons and stories, poetry and place, some in fact named after persons.
    British Unitarians underwent no such break with history as the Americans did in 1961, but there seems to have been the same search for identity and unifying principles.
          [. . .]
          But coming back to the relationship of Unitarians to Christianity, one is considering not how one responds to persons in general, but to one particular person, Jesus of Nazareth. On this question, we cannot think we start with a blank slate and ignore the fact that, as Emerson reminded his Unitarian hearers so long ago, the name of Jesus is not so much written as ploughed into history. Around him the greatest literature, art and music have been gathered, from which we too draw inspiration. And to heed his simple call: ‘Follow me’ is to set out on a path essentially the same is the one indicated by other prophets of world religion. As to whether this is called ‘Christian’ is simply a terminological issue.


Even in a free faith we need stories, and Jesus still beckons

A couple of weeks ago I was struck by the section of Phillip Hewett’s essay you heard in our readings in which he reminded us that:

“History shows no successful examples of religions based on disembodied principles, although there were attempts to devise some in the 18th and 19th centuries. All great religions are built around persons and stories, poetry and place; some in fact are named after persons.”

Throughout my entire ministry, but especially at this particular juncture in our culture’s political, social and religious history I’ve always agreed with Hewett in thinking that our liberal Christian tradition’s attempt to answer the human Jesus’ call to “Follow me” remains a more powerful, relevant and effective way of proceeding than by entering into what Hewett calls the “trackless ocean” or (more unkindly) the “swamp” of free-floating principles. (I’ve spoken about this a number of times before but particularly in this address which I’ve given a few times over the years.)

My reflections on this subject were further encouraged this week because an extraordinary number of Jesus related things came into view all at once; a new book with a chapter in it by Justin Meggitt on the legitimacy of describing Jesus as an anarchist; a new translation of the New Testament by David Bentley Hart; a lovely, unexpected gift of a silver medallion of Jesus (see photo at the head of this post); and, lastly, digital recordings of two very rare LPs of music by the splendid and underrated 1970s Cambridge folk group, the “Water Into Wine Band”. (You can hear a track from each of their two albums on Youtube HERE and HERE). Now, were I a Christian supernaturalist I’d almost be tempted to say this concatenation of things was delivered up to me as a SIGN — a sign of Jesus’ authoritative divine status and eternal worth. Instead, given that I’m what I often call a “Christian a-theist”, I’d prefer simply to call them a garland of timely, contingent, important, meaningful, earthly, and very human reminders that, as Ralph Waldo Emerson powerfully pointed out in his famous Divinity School Address of 1836, “the name of Jesus is not so much written as ploughed into the history of this world.” It’s certainly ploughed into me and, thanks to many, many conversations with you I know it’s ploughed into most of you too. It’s ploughed into our local church too, of course, and, we continue to meet, as our covenant says, “in the spirit of Jesus” and, as the notice by the front door reads: “Our religious thinking is related to the teaching of Jesus and its application in the modern world.”

However, as our reading from Philip Hewett revealed, here in the UK (although not to the extent of our American Unitarian brothers and sisters) this approach has become less and less prevalent and we have seen an increasing tendency to abandon as central the concrete example of the human Jesus and the stories told about him and to move towards the adoption of the aforementioned principles.

In many ways this move is, of course, perfectly understandable because to increasing numbers of (particularly younger) people here in the UK so much of traditional Christianity’s theology and general social and political outlook is, to be frank about it, felt to be unreasonable, toxic, regressive and reactionary. Indeed most of us here in some fashion probably count ourselves amongst this number.

But in acknowledging this reality it is also vital to remember that as a religious movement we have always tried to make it clear that Jesus and conventional Christianity are far from being the same thing (cf. A. Powell Davies’ words found at this link)

But if, like Hewett and me, you still feel that, for whatever reason, the human Jesus’ call to “follow me” remains utterly compelling, irresistible even — and I realise that some of you here today will not — then some very significant, challenging and relevant consequences follow from this.

Drawing on the two new books I mentioned at the beginning, the remainder of this address consists in offering you — and me — a few reminders of some of these significant and challenging consequences they suggest exists

In the first, “Essays in Anarchism and Religion” (published by the University of Stockholm), Justin Meggitt (University Senior Lecturer in the Study of Religion, Faculty of Divinity, University of Cambridge and also a Quaker) in a chapter called, “Was the historical Jesus an anarchist? Anachronism, anarchism and the historical Jesus”, reminds us again and again that:

“In Jesus’ vision, the kingdom belonged to the poor, not the rich; to the hungry, not those who were full; to the tax-collectors and prostitutes not chief priests and the aristocrats; to children not adults; to sinners and not the righteous” (p. 142).

Meggitt also reminds us that according to Jesus the kingdom’s values were best exemplified, not so much by ourselves but “by foreigners, beggars, and impoverished widows not the religiously, politically and economically powerful” (p. 142).

Here, in a nutshell, is a vision that speaks powerfully, if very generally, about what is to be done by any church community that still tries properly to follow Jesus in the strange, neoliberal, hyper-capitalistic, post-Brexit, post-Trump, post-Truth world in which we are slowly finding ourselves living. 

Meggitt’s essay also shows, convincingly to my mind, that for four overlapping reasons Jesus can legitimately be called an anarchist.
The first is that the kingdom of God about which he so often spoke is “characterized by the active identification and critique of coercive relations of power, and the enactment of new, egalitarian modes of social life” (p. 141).

The second reason is the prefigurative quality of the kingdom of God Jesus announces. By this Meggitt means that those who took Jesus seriously knew this meant, not merely advocating the kingdom in abstract theoretical terms but in actually attempting to bring it into being through the creation of “new forms of social life” within their own small communities. This also meant that the means a community adopted to do this needed to be “consistent with the desired ends”, i.e. that the outcomes were to be prefigured by the methods one chose to use (p. 147). One might cite here non-violent direct action as a classic example of what this looks like in practice.

The third reason is that Jesus’ “vision of the kingdom is not utopian but reflexive, undetermined, and self-creative.” In other words the community Jesus envisages — mirrored by his parables — is one that acknowledges the world is always going to resist simple explanation and so there should always be allowed room for people to make for themselves a range of non-coercive “indeterminate, experiential responses.” It is vital to understand here that Jesus’ parables “do not communicate a specific [utopian] plan” (p. 148) and, as Meggitt notes:

“Although utopias can have their uses — they can inspire, encourage, provide a pleasurable escape — they can also be coercive and that is why, on the whole, they have been resisted by anarchists; utopianism enforces others to live in a certain way, and a utopia envisaged as a single, totalising endpoint will necessitate manipulation to fit a predetermined plan” (p. 148).

In this sense Meggitt feels that “it seems more helpful to think of Jesus as anti-utopian” (p. 148).

The fourth reason is that the teaching (pedagogy) of the kingdom is itself also prefigurative and non-coercive. Jesus’ parables do not “compel the hearer to arrive at a narrowly predetermined understanding of what is being conveyed” and many of them “could also be said to function in some way to directly encourage empathy and identification with others” (p. 150).

So, that’s a brief introduction to Meggitt’s academic, but also very Quakerly and anarchist take on what he thinks are some of the consequences of heeding Jesus’ call to “Follow me.” It will come as no surprise to tell you that it’s one that I find persuasive and congenial, if always exceptionally challenging and daunting.

Now let’s turn to the second book I mentioned at the beginning, namely, David Bentley Hart’s about to be published new translation of the New Testament (Yale University Press). However, unlike Meggitt’s chapter, this book springs from an academic, theological and political position that I, personally, find deeply uncongenial.

Until this book crossed my radar this week I knew nothing about David Bentley Hart (b. 1965). It turns out that he is an American Orthodox Christian philosophical theologian, cultural commentator and polemicist. However, although as a cultural critic on a whole range of issues Hart appears, and even is, pretty conservative, on a number of occasions he has also called himself an “anarchist monarchist” and (in an essay called “Mammon Ascendent”) he has been explicitly critical of liberal capitalism and the neoliberal project.

Now Hart’s translation is yet to be published in the UK so I’ve only read a few extracts but that was enough to leave me awaiting receipt of my copy with both with interest and trepidation. Why do I wait thus? Well, the opening sentences of one high profile review will perhaps give you an indication:

“David Bentley Hart’s new single-handed translation of the New Testament will strike the fair-minded reader by turns as startling, incisive, audacious, smug, shrewd, and quirky to the point of exasperation: everything, in short, the author intended it to be. The book sets out to be provocative and succeeds.”

Well, I shall see soon enough the truth of the matter. But what particularly struck me and lured me into purchasing a copy was a review by John Milbank, the theologian (formerly of Cambridge University but now of Nottingham) who was one of the founders of “Radical Orthodoxy” — a primarily Anglo-Catholic approach to theology which is highly critical of modernity. Milbank wrote:

“Hart’s brilliant postscript [to his new translation] amounts to a call for a more genuinely Biblical orthodoxy: universalist, synergic, participatory, cosmic, gnostic (in a non-heterodox sense) and communitarian.”

Now I have to admit that I really, really don’t like either Hart’s or Milbank’s theology — not least of all for their continued call for a Biblical orthodoxy and their need for folk to believe in the reality of a Christian defined supernatural God — so I find it exceptionally intriguing and challenging that the words Milbank used to describe the consequences of seeking to follow the Jesus revealed by Hart’s new translation include four that I, holding a very different kind of theology, would also enthusiastically use, namely, universalist, synergic, participatory and communitarian.

So, finally, Hart’s book and Millbank’s words also help me to serve up a reminder that whenever a person (whether of theologically leftist or more conservative inclination) consciously makes an attempt to go back to what Jesus actually seems to have been saying, doing and encouraging in his own time and place, then the basic call we all hear from him in the present is not one that supports the current status quo — one which consistently suits the powerful and rich — but one which seeks to turn our current world upside-down in favour of a very, very different world indeed — namely, that ever ellusive, allusive, egalitarian, open and anarchic thing called the Kingdom of God.

So an important question for us within the modern Unitarian movement to ask is whether free-floating principles can ever, alone, deliver up a powerful enough motivating vision that would help us to overturn the money-changers’ tables and begin to bring in the kingdom of God or is heeding the call of Jesus to follow him still very much required?

For what it’s worth I strongly feel that free-floating principles are not (and never can be) enough and that even in a modern free-faith we continue to need the grounded, revolutionary stories we find in the New Testament through which Jesus powerfully still calls us into a life of radical kindness, forgiveness, hospitality, love and justice for all. 

So now, as examiners love to say: “Discuss” . . .