Come down, Jehovah - A Christian Atheist Meditation for Census Day

MP3 (this mp3 does not contain Chris Wood's song 'Come down, Jehovah' which is integral to this address so, before you listen to it, it's worth scrolling down this page either to hear Chris' song at the Amazon site - and perhaps buy the CD - or watch a You-tube video of him performing it).

Today we are required to fill in our census forms - a census the data of which, in case you didn't realise, is being collected and processed by Lockheed Martin UK. It includes a question about religious belief, and it is one which is framed in such a way as to create false categories not least of all because many of us today have very complex plural identities. This address is an attempt to get us thinking about such plural identities as well as how we should/might answer the census question. It also aims to show how an apparently contradictory categories can deliver something religiously coherent; a coherence that bureaucratic government simply cannot deal with.

One of the books that has had the most influence upon the way I understand Christianity (my own plural identification) is Ernst Bloch's 'Atheism in Christianity' published in 1972. When many people hear the title they are minded to think that he's just playing provocatively with words so as to sell a few books. After all. we all know, don't we?, that Atheism is not Christianity and Christianity is not Atheism? Surely they don't belong together either in a single person or on a census form?

But, with out any frivolous or merely provocative word-play, Bloch manages in the three little words of his title to give us the basic insight upon which his whole book is based.

Bloch's careful reading of the Biblical text over many years alerted him to the existence of a strong recurring narrative theme within it which speaks about God leaving his transcendent heavenly realm to walk and dwell side-by-side on earth with human kind in their efforts to achieve greater freedom and justice. Bloch notes two key stories as examples. The first is that concerning a God who sets his people free from the oppressions of Pharaoh, walks with them during their journey in the wilderness, and who eventually succeeds in guiding them to a promised land. The second is the story of Jesus who, for his followers, in his own person, brought God from heaven to dwell on earth amongst them. The story of Jesus is for Bloch a decisive moment in this narrative theme because Jesus' death on the cross also marks the final death of this transcendental God. The resurrection stories which follow are not about God rising up and going back to his transcendental realm but instead about how a new understanding of what it is to be human rises up in the communities who continue to live in ways inspired by Jesus. As Peter Thompson puts it (in his introduction to the 2009 reprint of Bloch's book) 'The mystical resurrection of Christ is . . . a sign of the material resurrection of hope. Christ functions as both the incarnation of hope in man and also the carrier of hope as *a* man' (Atheism in Christianity, Verso Press, London 2009 p. xxii).

(You can find Peter Thompson's Guardian piece on Atheism in Christianity here. A seminar on the book at Birkbeck College, London can be heard as an mp3 here:
Atheism in Christianity: “Only an atheist can be a good Christian; only a Christian can be a good atheist”

It is important to note that Bloch is not blind to the fact that all of the Biblical stories (including his favoured ones) include within them many reactionary and regressive elements and he remains acutely aware of how prone human-kind is to bouts of naive theological literalism. He is also clear that the Biblical texts contains plenty of stories which keep God firmly enthroned in heaven and which can be used, and still are used, to encourage ways of being in the world which are not at all concerned with greater human freedom and justice. A recent sermon preached in the Theological Federation of this city of Cambridge revealed this only too well.

But, for Bloch, these reactionary aspects are by the by because all he is concerned to show is that there exists, deep in the heart of the foundational text of Christianity, stories whose overall 'direction of travel' is one which points away from oppressive ways of being in the world and towards ways of being which promote greater freedom and human flourishing and, to return to the title of Bloch's book, which points away from transcendence and towards immanence, in other words there is Atheism in Christianity. Of course, there are all kinds of other things in Christianity - not least of all theism! - but one tendency in it is one which points towards Atheism. Of course, this reading of Christianity irritates all kinds of people, especially conventional Atheists and Christians (and, no doubt, census data processors), because it challenges our unhelpful human tendency to want everything to fit into nice, neat and simple categories.

But Bloch won't have this and good on him and it is absolutely essential to realise that Bloch's atheism is not anti-Christian because it is a *Christian* Atheism. Neither is Bloch anti the Bible because, for him, 'There is only this point: that the Church and the Bible are not one and the same. The Bible has always been the Church’s bad conscience.' And, as Bloch reminds us, although this book has often been used as a cattle prod to by the powerful 'the counter-blow against the oppressor is biblical, too, and that is why [the Bible] has always been suppressed or distorted, from the serpent on' (Atheism in Christianity, Verso Press, London 2009, p. 13).

I was going to illustrate, using Bloch's own words, something of his compelling and moving Christian Atheist way being-in-the-world - a way I was certainly compelled to embrace. As I did this I was aware that you might easily find Bloch's way of presenting things less than compelling - even dry. However, on this occasion, I'm fortunate in having to hand the work of a British folk singer called Chris Wood one of whose best known songs is called 'Come Down Jehovah' - a song which, in only five beautiful and moving minutes, shows what a real, embodied, faithful way of being Christian Atheism can be. It is important to say, that Chris Wood has never used these two words as a description of his own position and so I hope he will not be too offended by me seeing his song in the way I do. However I don't think he will be too annoyed because in his own biography he tells us that he started out as a choirboy and tells us that 'much of his music bears the influence of those years spent with the likes of Bach, Handel, Gibbons and Boyce'. Indeed his most recent album, 'Handmade Life', he describes as 'church music with drums.' Anyway, 'Come down, Jehovah' has, rightly in my opinion, been called an Atheist spiritual and in it you will see how, by embracing, rather than rejecting the language and tropes of Christianity, it is possible to articulate a faithful way of being human that offers us a new and creative way of understanding and using our Christian inheritance.

Here is a link to Amazon where you can hear the song as a taster to Chris Wood's second album, 'Trespasser'.

And here's the whole song on YouTube in all its glory:

Come down, come down from your mountain, Jehovah,
My neck is terribly stiff.
Hitch up your robes and your raiments, Jehovah,
Climb down to the foot of your cliff.
And drink from the stream that was always beneath you,
Drink from our wonderful font.
'Cause paradise is right here on earth, Jehovah,
What more could we possibly want?

Come down and talk amongst friends, Jehovah,
Come down and sit at your ease.
Walk through the woods and the valleys, Jehovah,
Sail upon glistening seas.
Pass on what you've learnt to the children, Jehovah,
And listen to what they have to say.
They say, 'Paradise is right here on earth, Jehovah,
Not tomorrow, but right now, today.

And Devil come up from your fiery furnace,
Come up and show us your face.
There's nothing you can teach us of evil or hatred,
We don't have right here in this place.
There is nothing so evil as man in his mischief,
Nothing so lost or insane.
And bring your demons up, too, so we'll know it's not you,
But it's us who must carry the blame.
It's us who must live with the shame. 

Come down, come down from your mountain, Jehovah,
Come down and be with us here.
Heaven and hell and the life ever after,
It's such a beguiling idea.
But our spell on this earth is much richer, Jehovah,
Richer than you'll ever know.
When it comes time to leave it behind,
We just close our eyes and let go.
If we've done our best we'll be ready for a rest,
We just close our eyes and let go.

As I said at the beginning I offer this meditation because, from today, we can fill in our census forms in which you will find a question asking about your religion. There are many reasons why this question is problematic and worse than useless but I'll leave them aside today because it's a done deal - it's there and, by law, you have to fill the form in. Mercifully this question is a voluntary one but, should you choose to answer it, the categories on offer are: No religion, Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Any Other (with a box to fill out what it is).

So what to do? Our own General Assembly is encouraging people connected with our churches to put down 'Unitarian' in the final box. But, should you choose to do this, you need to be aware that the census people (Lockheed Martin UK) will simply include you in the overall Christian category because 'Unitarian' is just a bureaucratic abbreviation of our full title - 'Unitarian and Free Christian.' True there will be some footnoted figures about the number of times 'Unitarian' was put down but we already know that, there are fewer than four-thousand, so I fail to see what good it will do. However, if you wish to do this, by all means go ahead.

Myself, in the past, I've simply ticked the Christian box because those of you who know me know that I'm no fan of denominations and, anyway, I think most of us really have understood that we are very much in a post-denominational, even post-religious age (by we I mean the kind of people that would attend a church such as this - I'm aware religion, and perhaps even denominations seem to be coming back with avengence). If we are to survive as a local, liberal religious body our future affiliations will have to be post-denominational too. I'm pleased that the current make-up of this congregation reflects this situation with many people amongst us who remain members of other Christian denominations other than our own and are, indeed, training for ministry within them. It also includes many non-theists and Atheists too - as well as people with different plural identities to my own, for example, there are a couple of folk here who will be putting down Buddhist-Christian.

But, as my address reveals, whilst for me ticking the Christian box is still not untrue, neither is it true, at least in the way that my Christian tick will be understood by most other people and, perhaps more importantly, when the final statistics are published, by those who will use my Christian tick to claim, for example, that we should be allowing faith schools or that, as a society, we should pay more attention to churches who are, say, anti-gay. All of whom, don't forget, want to contribute to the Big Society by offering replacement services to those public ones which have been, or are about to be, cut. Remember - this census will be used to help frame and shape Government policies and faith adherence is, once again, regrettably, part of the British political scene.

As I see it I have two choices - and I'd be interested to know what are yours. The first is to put 'Christian Atheist' in the 'other' box. But I doubt that this will be understood by Lockheed Martin UK - are they really going to see that I am using 'Christian' as an adjective and not as a noun? If they don't, will they count me as a Christian or an Atheist? - neither of which (alone) is true. Or will they just discount my entry as plainly mad or just a mistake?

The second thing I can do is, of course, not to answer it at all. On balance, it is this option that I have chosen.

In the end, the only record I want of my religion is what we do here together in this community, as Chris Wood sung, as we  talk amongst friends and work out how to do our *human* best. And then, when it comes time to leave it all behind, to just close my eyes and let go - but confident that if we do the work, heaven is here, amongst us, right here, right now.


Andrew Bethune said…
I identified my religion as 'Other' and 'Unitarian'. THat seemed the best way of describing where I am at the moment.