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 . . .


James said…
Dear Andrew,

As someone who about once a week considers myself a Christian atheist (five of the other six I am a Buddhist Unitarian Universalist), I am deeply moved by this and yr immediate past reflection...

Yesterday I was sitting with a woman who was a breath or two, or an hour or two, but certainly not a day or two away from death.

We were waiting for family to arrive.

The hospice nurse's time came to go and she asked me if I would be willing to pray with her and the dying woman.

Atheist who loves his natal tradition and eternally grateful for the Buddha's insights and the practices of the Zen traditions, I put my hands over the barely responsive hands of what was left of an amazing woman, whose story should be remembered by more than her family, and with the hospice nurse bowing her head, I began to speak aloud to whomever might hear. The two aids came into the room and kneeled.

I gave voice to our prayers, our hopes, our fears, our aspirations.

Totally unworthy.

Completely hypocritical.

Absolutely sincere.

I felt the words falling from my tongue to be the words we felt in our hearts.

Where they went was none of my business.

The praying was.
Anonymous said…
Your post sounds alot like modern deism... However, the phrase "have your cake and eat it" also springs to mind.

With respect, you come across as as person who has lost all Christian belief yet cannot let go of the titles, community and traditions of Christianity.

But ultimately a times comes - when the stack of cards has become a messy flattened pile - that we have to finally let go of what was and clear it all to one side.
Anonymous said…
Alot like this perhaps?
Dear Anonymous, thanks for your continuing engagement. Also thanks too to James; your comment was grounded, moving and hepful.

Anonymous - re: Deism. I can see why you might suggest this but, to be a real Deist, you have to believe that such a Deistic God actually exists. The veracity of a Deistic God seems as unlikely to me as the veracity of a Christian God. That there may well be something useful in entertaining the idea of some kind of God (who exists as an idea but doesn't exist in fact) - whether conceived in Christian or Deist terms - seems to me without doubt but I cannot take the next step of thinking that such a God could exist or has ever actually existed.
Yewtree said…

I would say that your position is deeply Unitarian - in the tradition of the Martineaus, and indeed Rammohun Roy, author of the Precepts of Jesus and all the thinkers who were influenced by him, including Emerson, Thoreau, and Joseph Estlin Carpenter, whom you quoted the other day.

As you may remember, I'm a Wiccan and a Unitarian, but I joined Unitarianism precisely because I wanted to engage with the Christian mythos and liberal Christian values in the way that you describe. That's why a lot of the addresses that I have produced so far engage with Christian themes, albeit set in a context of comparative religion.
Ban Do Yew Ho said…
"In key areas the natural sciences seem to have trumped certain claims of Christianity, one of which is the objective existence of God,"

How has natural science 'trumped' the claim that God exists?
Yewtree said…
How has natural science 'trumped' the claim that God exists?Note that Andrew wrote "the objective existence of God" which is slightly different.

I would say that natural science has completely squeezed out the need to explain the existence of the universe by the idea of a transcendent or supernatural creator deity (particularly one who is somehow mysteriously three persons in one entity).

It has not removed the need for the mystical Divine as posited by Tillich and others - the ground of our being, that which we hold to be most worthwhile, the existence of love, the immanent Presence in the world, etc.
James said…
"I would say that natural science has completely squeezed out the need to explain the existence of the universe by the idea of a transcendent or supernatural creator deity (particularly one who is somehow mysteriously three persons in one entity).

It has not removed the need for the mystical Divine as posited by Tillich and others - the ground of our being, that which we hold to be most worthwhile, the existence of love, the immanent Presence in the world, etc."

Once again, we need to highlight that you are arguing against a straw man here.

It is true that supernatural theism still holds sway with many Christians (and Jews and Muslims might I add) - but the Bible is full of language that points to a more pantheist / panentheist God.

And if you do throw out the whole spectrum of theist thought because you've mistaken it all for the straw man, then what might I ask are you hoping to be left with?

Often we see the result is people believing in magical crystals and so on, or simply believing in nothing - nihilism.
Yewtree said…
Hi James

You misunderstand my position, I think. I don't believe in a Creator (or Creatrix) because I'm a pantheist. To me (as a Wiccan and a Unitarian), the universe is a theophany (a manifestation of the Divine).

Like I said, natural science has not removed the need for the mystical Divine as posited by Tillich and others - the ground of our being, that which we hold to be most worthwhile, the existence of love, the immanent Presence in the world, etc.

I am aware that the Bible sometimes offers a more pan(en)theist view, e.g. "In him we live, move and have our being"; "The Kingdom of Heaven is all around you and you do not see it".
Hi James and Yewtree (Andrew here) - I'm very happy to host this conversation between you (I mean that, because it relates importantly to some of the things I'm talking about so has a home here) - but just to pop a personal word in on this matter at this point. I'm personally trying to let science be science and faith to be faith but not go on to make the mistake that makes science as quasi-religion and religion a quasi-science. Wittgenstein was very concerned about this saying:

". . . we [philosophers] are not doing natural science, nor yet natural history" (PI p.230).
Yewtree said…
Hi Andrew

Thanks for your hospitality :)

I'm personally trying to let science be science and faith to be faith but not go on to make the mistake that makes science as quasi-religion and religion a quasi-science.I did my MA dissertation on Pagans and science, and touched on the religion and science debate in general, as well.

There are many possible positions vis à vis the relationship between religion and science; yours appears similar to the non-overlapping magisteria position - but that can be problematic as in that scenario, we still need some objective criteria for deciding whether a religious system is effective. (If you want a summary of all the different possible positions on religion and science, I'd be very happy to email them to you - it's too long to go into here).

I tend towards the view that religion and spirituality are systems for making symbolic meanings of the world, whereas science is about analysing it. So they are two complementary views of the world. Religion and spirituality are mythopoetic; science is factual. Of course you can apply spiritual meaning-making to science and be awed by galaxies and flowers; spirituality doesn't have to focus on the unseen (though it often assumes that there is an unseen component of reality).
Yewtree, yes please do email the things directly to me I'd be interested.

In citing Wittgenstein I'm calling attention to the language games we use as scientists, people of faith, bloggers, cyclists, musicians, whatever and, therefore, also calling us to be alert to essential differences in the way language (grammar and individual words) is USED in these 'games'; we must always look to the use. However, as whole people, it is clear we engage in a variety of language games simultaneously. The danger is that we get seduced into thinking that our words and grammar in one language game map one to one to the same words and grammar in another. By so doing we can delude ourselves and others in ways that cause all kinds of confusions and conflicts (internal and external). We get bewitched by our language. As Wittgenstein observes (PI 109) philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of our language (trans. G. E. M. Anscombe).

To return to the subject of these recent posts, my problem is when any religious tradition uses its religious language in a quasi-scientific fashion thinking that it allows them to say something about the way the world is in a fashion akin to the natural sciences. God THUS expressed is plainly nonsensical and can be shown not to exist. But in religious and philosophical circles the language of God is (when it has not bewitched into thinking it is a science) is really trying to do (show) something utterly different. But, if a person is not bewitched by the language then they can be a natural scientist and a philosopher/theologian and use language in an apparently contradictory way that (to the un-bewitched) is really at all contradictory.

But, then, that same person has, I think, a clear public-duty to absolutely clear about the different language games they are using in every context - not only for their own clarity of thought but for also for that of their hearers. If they do not make this clear then the bewitchment simply continues; the fly remains trapped in the fly bottle. But it's hard to do, damnably hard. It makes preaching (and blogging) a complete nightmare. I only do it (and then with marginal success) because, as a fly myself, I have felt there have been moments when I have got out of the bottle. The feeling is so liberating that I cannot but wish to help other folk to experience this so one returns into the melee - back into the bottle.
Yewtree said…
I must confess to not having read Wittgenstein, but his language games sound similar to the idea of discourse (as used by Foucault and others). I used discourse analysis in my research, and tend to be quite aware of discourse (to the irritation of those around me when I start banging on about congregations of experiential humanity and the like, à la Heelas and Woodhead's Spiritual Revolution book - worth a read if you haven't seen it; Steve Dick said he found it very interesting).

I do agree that the ability to switch from one discourse to another and be aware that one is doing it, is very liberating.
Anonymous said…
"I'm personally trying to let science be science and faith to be faith but not go on to make the mistake that makes science as quasi-religion and religion a quasi-science."

The end product of these conversations (which are taking place across the web, most of which is outside Unitarian circles) is not about establishing a new modern religion of any sort or about simply scrapping any notion of God. I think we need to agree on that from the start.

It is about continuing the conversation of human philosophical / theological understanding that has taken place across the ages. It is about bringing this conversation about God, about the nature of our reality and existence etc into the modern age - and to do this the findings of science must in some way be incorporated.

The product of this journey will hopefully result in collective affirmation of truths - but also will naturally include individual diversity.
Amen! to the last Anonymous post.
Yewtree said…
Ahem! to the last anonymous post...

Well, I think we need to explore what "God" means. For instance, to me, the Divine includes both genders and many different facets and manifestations; and it's immanent in Nature.
Amen and Ahem! One doesn't often get those two together. I guess the way I read it (as the author of the original blog and minister to a church) is to refuse to excise the word God from the language of a liberal church in the mistaken belief that such an act will clear things up. It seems to me that we need to be happy and confident about using the word 'God' in a corporate fashion as a placeholder for that mysterious otherness we, as liberal religious people, meet to acknowledge. BUT, and it is a huge BUT, it needs to include the conception of 'no-God' and that allows for the non-existence of God too.

I'm not worried about differing conceptions of God/not-God floating around and mixing it up but I am worried when the word gets excised. So my 'Amen' is about keeping the WORD God and I hope that connects with the 'Ahem.' After all - I've just admitted I'm an atheist (in a technical sense . . .).
Yewtree said…
I agree about not excising the concept of the Divine but would prefer a gender-neutral word, or one that includes the Divine Feminine - which IS part of the Jewish and Christian traditions, in spite of assertions to the contrary in the foreword of Hymns of Faith and Freedom. I know you talk about Venus sometimes, which is great, but what about Shekhinah (the Divine Presence) and Ruach and Sophia (the Divine Wisdom)?

I'd be the first to say that there are huge problems with the way some Pagans talk as if the God and the Goddess are a heterosexual couple; but I think it's important to include the Goddess. Try reading a hymn about Divine Wisdom or the Divine Presence as if the hymn was talking about a female figure, and you may see how different it feels.
Dear Yewtree,

As you might imagine I have absolutely no problem with the feminine divine. I simply choose sometimes to start talking about God as her and other times as him - when I minded to speak of God using personal pronouns which is not often. I find it keeps the congregation on its toes. Of course, sometimes, I get into trouble. Let me tell you a true story from my own ministry . . .

A woman came to the morning service one day and was in deep distress over her partner (male). This triggered an enraged tirade against men in general but specifically about her father (delivered very quietly but intensely to me - not at me - immediately before I began the service). Alert and sensitive to this, when I came to the Lord's Prayer I indicated that "Our Mother" could be used, if wished, as our words could never capture the Divine completely. I then began with "Our Father . . .". However, I had only got the word "Our" out when the elederly man in the front row, who often proudly told me that he'd never said the Lord's Prayer in the sixty years he had been a Unitarian, shouted (and I mean shouted) "FATHER!" and then sat silently through the rest of the prayer!

How complex is that?! He was 'happy' not to say the Lord's Prayer only in so far as he was not saying the prayer he was happy with not saying. He was not happy about not saying a prayer which addressed God as Mother - that was a step too far - but even so he could only say Father.

Man (if you can forgive the hippie pun at this point), what is one to do?

Anyway, I got the giggles at that point and I think that helped us all get through to the Amen (or was it Ahem?).

Right - off on my bike to greet Venus once more in the wide open fens.

Warmest wishes,

Anonymous said…
"Well, I think we need to explore what "God" means. For instance, to me, the Divine includes both genders and many different facets and manifestations; and it's immanent in Nature."

Is this not the God of many ages that you speak of? THIS IS GOD!

Again, we need to consciously strive to move completely beyond the confines that a dominant supernatural theism has placed on us - because even when we think we've departed from it, we are still trapped by its language and still continue to give it credence by assuming it is the only vision of God we can really speak of. This is why 'metatheists' (for want of a better term) like yourself tend to avoid the term 'God' and use Divine, Spirit etc instead when they speak of God.

I feel we need to doggedly hang onto the term 'God' when we speak of our spiritual perspective and not simply hand it over to the supernatural theists / literalists / dogmatists of our age to define.

As a sidenote, the metaphor of mother and womb has been the most resonant for me in visualising the relationship between God and nature / humankind.
Yewtree said…
Thanks for that little story, it made me chuckle. Well, it obviously matters deeply which deity you don't believe in.

When people tell me that "Jesus taught us to say 'Our Father'", I like to point out that the Aramaic word 'Abwûn', which Jesus would have used, means something like "birther-begetter". And in Genesis, it says that the Elohim created humans, "male and female created They them, in Their image" (and Elohim is a feminine plural of a masculine singular, or vice versa).

I didn't think you had a problem with the Divine Feminine, as you have explicitly said you don't, but (assuming you use the red hymnbook) the author/s of its preface appear to have had one!
Goodness there are a lot of comments on this blog now. It takes almost a second to scroll down the page . . .

Re: Anonymous' point (won't you let us know who you are - even a pen name would help to distinguish between different Anons and can only add to the depth of the conversation). I think language is the problem BUT only in so far as one does'nt recognise this. When one does begin to see how it works in different language-games and, perhaps more importantly, what its real limits are, then words can be a very helpful aid to real freedom. Bewitchment is the problem as I said earlier.

Yewtree: Actually we don't use the Red Hymn book. We mostly use the Green one and, every now and then, the old Blue one.
Yewtree said…
Hooray - the green hymnbook is fabulous (I'm a huge fan of John Andrew Storey). Are you getting the new purple ones?

There was a blue one? I must get hold of a copy (I think I know someone who will have one).

Anonymous - if I use the word God, I usually say "the God" and mean Pan or Cernunnos. If I mean what I think you mean, I prefer "the Divine". And if I mean the Jewish God, I say Yahweh. It's complicated being a polymorphist...

And then there's the Goddess(es)....
Yewtree said…
A propos of comment number 12 - I tried to email you the things but it bounced back - have you changed your email address?
Dear Yewtree - it is as at the top of my blog and at the church website (on the contacts page) - have another go! Thanks.

Lima Ilufa said…
about supernatural theism as being the antonym (or part of the antonym) to what you believe, could it be called personal theism? I'm no scholar, and have a hard time understanding half of what I'm reading on this blog, but I get the impression that you believe in an immanence(what I really want to say, if the word was possible, is a "permanence") as the cause of the universe, because there should be some existence to explain ours. This permanent eternal "thing" could be the universe itself, or something different or greater that caused it (a pre-big bang eternal state). Because when science explains how things are, it cannot possibly explain the concept of existence. It can only says things like : "this here exists because that phenomenon occurred". But how to explain existence itself? Existence itself would be this unexplainable, unsearchable Other that people call God or an idea of God. Then what I call personal theism would have that "permanence" to be a person, giving it a will and automatically giving a meaning to life. The alternative would be to think it impersonal, and to have everyone still try to find his own meaning. Atheism would be in that latter category(though it doesn't accept the idea of a God, there would be an implicit one - "to be" + law of causality). Christian Atheism would be in that category too with the meaning for life sought after in the New Testament "morals". I wouldn't say the New Testament teachings, because even if as someone said there are some phrases that echo pantheist ideas, we can say that the NT message absolutely conveys the idea of a personal God. My question is : do you feel I'm right in saying that all theologies or ideas about God can be put into those 2 categories : (1) an impersonal "things are the way they are" God, that will never clash with science (this God is even explored, browsed and to some extent experienced using science, without its essence in anyway graspable -- its essence is the essence);(2) a personal God where I would put what you call supernatural theism. But then my "problem": I would prefer to call it personal theism, because I can imagine a pantheist believing in supernatural phenomena.
Dear Rod,

Thanks for the comment. I've posted a reply, of sorts, as a individual blog dated 24th August 2009. Hope it says something useful . . .