“Only a God can still save us”—a liberal religious confession
As we continue to watch Russia’s invasion of Ukraine brutally unfold it is, perhaps, inevitable that many people are seeing historical parallels with the run-up to the Second World War. So, for example, some people are saying that the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014 could be seen as a parallel to the German invasion of the Sudetenland in 1938, and the current Russian invasion of Ukraine as a parallel to the German invasion of Poland in 1939. It’s clearly tempting to make such claims but I’m not entirely sure the parallels are real. However, having said that, I do find myself generally agreeing with a point of view attributed to Mark Twain, namely that “history doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes.”
Taking Twain’s point seriously, I want to use it here to help us think about a theological rhyme that has been echoing darkly in my own ears for well over two decades now, namely, the failure to develop an adequate, liberal theological response, not only the horrors of the Second World War, but also to those of the First.
My own European, liberal Protestant religious tradition had, by the beginning of the First World War, developed a very optimistic world-view in which God’s primary characteristic was perceived to be love, And, since God was also all-powerful and all-seeing, God’s love — or so it was believed — was destined, in time, to prevail everywhere. The horrors of the First World War put this central liberal claim under huge stress and we came out of the conflict truly shell-shocked and theologically damaged.
The truth is that post-1918 period we had few effective liberal theological resources in play to answer the question of where on earth our God of love been during this evil and violent conflict. Our failure to come up with an adequate answer to this question, in turn, provided the opportunity for much more conservative, judgmental and unkind theologies to develop and begin to dominate our culture.
Anyway, it was in this profound state of shock and on our back foot that, in 1923, the building in which I am recording this piece was built, the Cambridge Unitarian Church. It was also in this period that the, by now, catastrophic decline in church attendances first began, a decline that has been particularly pronounced in liberal churches.
However, despite this major challenge, both to our theological optimism and numbers, we persisted in following our former course and continued to proclaim, to borrow from the medieval mystic, Julian of Norwich, that “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”
We choose to ignore the liberal theological possibilities being offered to us by the existentialist Continental philosophies of people like Nietzsche, Heidegger and Wittgenstein and instead, doggedly stuck to our own version of naive, theological realism, namely, the idea that the God of love exists independently of human beings and still intervenes in our world; that the God of love can be known; and that this God of love may be spoken about truthfully.
And then came the invasion of the Sudetenland and Poland and, with it, the start of the Second World War, a conflict which brought with it, not only the kinds of military evils already seen in the First World War, but those of the Holocaust and nuclear weapons.
It might have been thought that in 1945 we would have finally have turned our attention to developing a theologically sophisticated, liberal response to the persistence of human evil, but we did not. In part, this was because, having defeated the Nazis in Germany, the fascists in Italy and the Imperial regime in Japan, billions of dollars were pumped into the global economy and a wave of wealth and optimism swept across us such that, by 1957 the British Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, could say: “Let us be frank about it: most of our people have never had it so good.” Of course, there was still the fear of war with the Soviet Union but, in 1989, even this fear was finally removed and, as Francis Fukuyama hubristically proclaimed, the end of history arrived and Western Liberal Democracy prevailed. In such a world, what need was there for developing a liberal religious theology that truly took human sin and evil seriously? None at all and, yet again, we felt we could simply and unproblematically assert Sunday by Sunday that “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”
It was within this world-view, which Mark Fisher called “Capitalist Realism”, that, in 1997, I began training for the Unitarian and Free Christian ministry and, believe you me, it’s been a long, hard and depressing slog throughout to make any headway at all in articulating a modern liberal theology that takes the depth of human sin and evil seriously.
And now here we are in 2022, when it seems not only that all may not turn out well, but also that all is not well, and all manner of thing is not well. And where is my own liberal religious tradition as a whole going to ground its theological response to the increasing problems connected with human sin and evil we are now facing everywhere, from climate change to increasingly violent and brutal wars that once again threaten genocide and nuclear war?
Well, nowhere really. Or, at least, that is how it seems to me.
True enough, my blog, now fifteen years old, provides an almost complete record of my own faltering, mostly failed and always inadequate attempts at trying to develop a liberal theology that can speak meaningfully to these things but, although I hope you may find useful fragments somewhere in there/here, in truth, you are highly unlikely to find the required liberal ground in my own writings.
In connection with this admission, I also have no choice but to confess I still believe God is dead — certainly the old liberal God of love of my forbears — and I find I can only, to all intents and purposes, remain a kind of atheist, albeit of a clearly Christian flavour.
Despite this admission, I still feel Heidegger was right when, in 1966, he said “only a god can still save us” and that “the only possibility of salvation left to us is to prepare readiness, through thinking and poetry, for the appearance of the god or for the absence of the god during the decline.”
In writing this piece for you I have found my faith consists in fully affirming this latter, highly minimalist, theological position. In my own work as a minister and as a philosophically inclined theologian, my wager — which is nothing less than the whole of my life’s work — my wager is that by paying attention to, being aware and then mindful of what is truly going on in our world, then together in loving conversation, and through thinking and poetry, we each remain a place where at any time God might happen, where at any time God might appear, even as we find ourselves, yet again, walking through the valley of the shadow of death and in the presence of the worst kind of human sin and evil.