Why getting splinters in your hand is better than doing metaphysics

(Remember that the context in which I offer this address is to find ways for us, as religious liberals, to engage fully in the world, fully in our faith and doing that in a wholly secular age.)

Those of you who know me know well know that, although I retain a profound love and respect for the person Jesus, for a long time I have not been able to believe in the truth of Christian metaphysics. Like many people I have realised that Jesus, his followers and those who later came to found the Christian faith necessarily understood the world in a way very different from us. As Paul van Buren wrote back in 1963, 

"Whatever ancient man may have thought about the supernatural, few men are able today to ascribe 'reality' to it as they would to the things, people or relationships which matter to them. Our inherited language of the supernatural has . . . . died 'the death of a thousand qualifications' (The Secular Meaning of the Gospel, van Buren p. 4) and he goes on to note that the "scientific revolution . . . . has given us another, empirical, way of thinking and of seeing the world. That which cannot be conceived in terms of man and the world explored by the natural sciences is simply without interest because it is not 'real'. . . . We can no longer pretend that the Gospel can give us information about 'how things are' in the world" (van Buren p. 5).

As someone who has grown up in an active liberal Christian family environment and a broadly speaking Christian culture and, especially as someone, who has become a liberal Christian minister my problem has always been how, in Bonhoeffer's felicitous phrase, I might be a 'Christian in a world come of age' and to do it without being disingenuous and in a way that does not demand from me a sacrificium intellectus (van Buren p. 5). It is a hugely difficult question to address anyway, but particularly from inside a religious tradition, and it has rarely been better posed than by the German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

God as a working hypothesis in morals, politics, or science, has been surmounted and abolished, and the same thing has happened in philosophy and religion (Feuerbach!). For the sake of intellectual honesty, that working hypothesis should be dropped, or as far as possible eliminated. . . . Honesty demands that we recognise that we must live in the world as if there were no God. And this is just what we do recognise - before God! God himself drives us to this realisation. - God makes us know that we must live as men who can get along without Him. 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 (Letters and Papers from Prison SCM, London 1971, p. 360).

Having set the scene a little I'll turn here to a story of something that happened to me on Good Friday. Despite my significant metaphysical concerns, on balance (though that balance is always precarious and I remain acutely aware that it may change) I have decided every year of my ministry that more is to be gained by participating in the ecumenical Good Friday "Act of Witness" than by absenting myself.

(NB - If you want to know precisely why do please ask. 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.)

One of my closest Christian colleagues in Cambridge is Jochen Dallas - the pastor of the German Lutheran church here - and this year he invited me to give one of the readings. (Jochen is, to me at least, a shining example of Christianity at its best and I am pivileged to know him and to have learnt from his example of Christian discipleship.) I agreed and so, in my clerical collar (which I rarely wear), I duly arrived in the the Market Square at the appointed time. Though acutely discomfited as always (I'm sure that, like Peter, I would have denied that I knew Christ three times) - I sang the hymns, read the reading, joined in the prayers. I can cope with it (just) because these things are, primarily, intellectual activities and, like many liberals, I have become very skilled at being able to distance myself intellectually from them. You have heard from me this example before; standing beneath the cross is rather like standing at the edge of the swimming pool and discussing the theory and physics of swimming and water etc. but never actually getting into the pool oneself. It's swimming without getting wet which - in truth - is not swimming at all! It really is, when you think about it, a terribly sorry compromise. However, that's how things have mostly been for liberal Christians for many years and one might as well just 'fess up.

Because many people had other Good Friday services to attend, at the end of the service there a swift dispersion of those gathered. However, I lingered, partly because I got to talking with two people from the Methodist Church whom I had not seen for a while but, primarily, because I had invited Jochen and his curate, Melanie, to join Susanna and me for coffee and hot cross buns at the Manse and I need to wait for them to gather themselves together. Little did I know but the wait meant I was to be pushed, quite unexpectedly, into the swimming pool.

As I stood chatting a verger from St Edward's (a nearby church) came up to us and reminded us that we had to return the cross to the church for their own service. It's quite a heavy thing and, since I was one of the few fit young people still present I was pressed into service - along with Melanie - and told to carry the cross back to the church.

Oh dear! This was more than just an intellectual idea I could distance myself from. This was getting wet - or rather getting my hands dirty in a real, physical and tangible way. Importantly I was pressed into this service against my will; not because I am unwilling to led a hand to carry something heavy for someone else but because this was carrying, not a neutral load like some shopping or a sack of potatoes, but the cross damn it - the most physical, tangible, symbol of the Christian faith you can imagine. As Melanie and I picked up the cross I could not but help recall the following story from the Gospels:

"And when they had mocked [Jesus], they stripped him of the purple cloak, and put his own clothes on him. And they led him out to crucify him. And they compelled a passer-by, Simon of Cyre'ne, who was coming in from the country, the father of Alexander and Rufus, to carry his cross" (Mark 15:20-21).

To a Friday shopper I can only have looked like a model committed, believing Christian but, as you know, that's not precisely the case. But, as I carried the cross I thought long and hard about Simon of Cyre'ne and reflected that we know absolutely nothing about him. Perhaps he believed implicitly in Jesus and his message and his later status as a Christian saint is deserved but it is equally likely that he was simply one of the many who, then as now, were honestly seeking a way into a more fulfilled and complete life and who was curious to see this man who proclaimed he could help him to it. We simply don't know but, either way, Simon's life would have been radically changed from that moment - the memory of that day would unlikely be forgotten in a hurry - and, importantly, for the most part, his involvement in events had nothing to do with his intellectual attitude and choices except, perhaps, his decision to be in Jerusalem and that street, on that day and at that time. And maybe even then the rational choice to go there was nothing to do with Jesus at all but simply a meeting with a client at number 27 to sell him some goods from his home country of Libya in North Africa.

I have been deeply surprised at how profoundly effected I was by the experience of carrying that cross but not, perhaps, in the way you might imagine. For starters it is important to note that it has made no effect whatsoever on my intellectual beliefs about the metaphysical claims of Christianity which I still think are false. The God in which I believe - in so far as it makes sense to call a God who doesn't exist a God - is the same God of which Bonhoeffer spoke "who makes us live in the world without the God-hypothesis".

No, what changed was that I had a real, conscious and visceral encounter with the only thing modern secular men and women can believe and honestly say they can know something, namely Nature (which we know through the natural sciences and consequent human analysis of and reflection upon the results). It was the rough wood which left splinters in my hand and memory of the cross' weight that took me into the heart of the Christian story in a way that is – as a secular human being – impossible for me via belief in God (a God metaphysically articulated that is).

You see the kind of religious faith I am seeking and, perhaps this is true of you too, is not really one to do with beliefs at all - certainly not metaphysical beliefs. It is to do with finding a way of living in this world, the secular world of the twenty-first century, which is to say a world without God. But it is also to live in this world in a fashion which recognises that there exists a strange 'more to this than meets the eye' quality about it – and to recognise that (to cite the Roman Catholic theologian Jacques Maritain) things (the material stuff of the world) always give more than they have (take, for example, a painting – we can know ingreat detail the chemical structure of the paint, the paper etc. etc. yet from these ‘pragmata’ extraordinarily a picture of something more is shown to us). And here I end up being thrown back on some word’s of Wittgenstein’s and I can think of no better way to point to what happened to me on Good Friday than with some of the final paragraphs of his Tractatus:

§6.52 We feel 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.

§6.521 The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of this problem (is not this the reason why those who have found after a long period of doubt that the sense of life became clear to them have then been unable to say what constituted that sense?)

§6.522 There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical.

(Trans. Pears and McGuinness 1961)

In the end I don't know if any of this makes any sense - in a way it can't because what I am trying to say cannot be said – it can only be made manifest by living in this world without metaphysics and by getting splinters in your hands, by taking up, in some way as did Jesus and Simon of Cyre'ne, the cross – that is to say a life of service and love in this world without God (my God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?). Alas, my friends, that is a very uncomfortable and unpleasant thing to do especially if you are an intellectually driven liberal, like me, who would prefer to live in the abstract real of ideas that I can never really touch or be touched by – unlike that rough, splinter giving wood of Good Friday. This is why, in retrospect I am happy to have been pushed against my will into life, like Simon of Cyrene and why, in a way, I'm trying to push you too.

PS - re-reading this the following morning to put up a copy on the website of the church in Cambridge which called me to be their minister some ten years ago, I realised the following link to the wikipedia article on Christian Atheism might be for some interesting and helpful to read. You will see that wikipedia has some issues with the article and it is worth viewing the talk page as they suggest.


James said…
thank you, Andrew. I hope you get all the splinters out...
cubbie said…
oh wow, yes, i am excited to be back in touch with you, and seeing what you have to say, again. it stretches me in really good ways.

you have probably read karen armstrong. i like her (and others') idea that there are different ways of knowing things. that the spiritual is in no way less real than the tangible and rational, but that it's not quantifiable in the same ways.

i also like the new word which your comment moderation is asking me to type: windism.
Anonymous said…
Amazing. Thank you.
Yewtree said…
I did smile at the picture of you carrying a cross through the middle of Cambridge, chiefly because I was imagining how I would feel under the circumstances; very awkward. Hope the splinters are out.

If you want to know precisely why do please ask. 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.I think that would make for an interesting blogpost...

There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical. That is very true. The Greek pagan mystery traditions made a distinction between "that which cannot be spoken of" and "that which myst not be spoken of"; rather like the distinction between the apophatic and cataphatic qualities of God.
Anonymous said…
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?
I've replied to a couple of these posts in the blog which chronologically immediately follows this one. It's called "More painful consequences of those splinters." Let's move there . . .