Someone has just asked how can I, reasonably and conscientiously, remain a self-avowed Christian and Unitarian minister when I have basically embraced atheism? - An answer . . .

A few days ago an anonymous author posted a question on my last blog entry Why wait - and what on earth for? An Advent meditation on meaning-gifting and the world pushing back:

Anonymous said...
It's probably been said a dozen times before on here, but how can you reasonably and conscientiously remain a self-avowed Christian and Unitarian minister when you have basically embraced atheism? I'm sure you have a very intellectual, flowery answer but if you no longer experience the call of God - and have adopted a kind of humanism - then you should perhaps walk that path rather than try grafting it to the Christian path.


Anon. is right in thinking that this question has been explored before on this blog (not least of all here) but it seems worthwhile, to me at least, to take another pass over the matter. I'm grateful for the opportunity, not least of all because it's helpful to keep revisiting these difficult issues. So, here we go . . .

Dear Anon,

You begin by asking how I can "reasonably and conscientiously remain a self-avowed Christian and Unitarian minister" when I have "basically embraced atheism?"

Well, the absolutely essential thing to note is I have embraced the recognition that the *God of the philosophers* is dead. My atheism relates, therefore, to this God and not, as my last address clearly states, the God who is *something like* the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. I'll return to this thought later on.

You then move to an intimation that I "no longer experience the call of God". Well, this is not the case and a little bit of autobiography is now required to show this.

My own call to ministry reached the point where I had to respond to it in 1987 (on the 23rd October to be precise in a house, appropriately perhaps, a few hundred yards from the Angel of Islington underground station). I experienced an overwhelming presence of something that I felt was best called God and, given my life-long involvement in the Church (Anglican), this led me to write in my prayer book that "I vow this day to follow our Lord Jesus Christ." My entire life, since that day, has been an attempt, both intellectually and in terms of an embodied, practical religious response, to understand what on earth this meant.

The embodied, practical response was a fairly straightforward return to regular church-going and Christian community. Firstly, in an Anglican context (and I nearly began to train for the priesthood in 1991) and then in the more explicitly liberal Christian context that I found at the Ipswich Unitarian Meeting House under their (alas soon to retire) minister Cliff Reed. I began to train for the  Unitarian and Free Christian ministry (though it is fair to say that  I am more the latter than the former) at Oxford in 1997. I graduated in 2000 and that same year accepted the call to become the minister at the Memorial Church in Cambridge where I am still.

The intellectual response to my experience was and is, however, somewhat more convoluted. Naturally, I began to study within the prevailing intellectual paradigm of our own culture and so began a philosophical inquiry into the nature of God - unknowingly to me at the time, this inquiry concerned, of course, the God of the philosophers. I delved into all kinds philosophy and philosophical theology and eventually latched on to the British and American Idealists (notably F. H. Bradley and Josiah Royce) whom I studied in great depth whilst I was at Oxford. This interest slowly developed into a passion for Spinoza upon whose philosophy I began increasingly to base my own living, preaching and teaching. The first few years of my ministry (2000-2007/8) show the mark of this clearly. (The prayer-book I wrote at this time probably represents the high-water mark of this approach).

However, continuing my study, thinking and living I found that there were key aspects in this Idealist approach which did not seem to stack up well and I began to hear the creaking of the structure - when I began to see actual cracks I admit to experiencing some considerable concern (distress even). In this distress (I'll call it that) I re-read Tolstoy's "Confession" that I'd come across back in school and was profoundly struck by his situation which wasn't that different from my own. I hunted out his Gospel in Brief and immediately found a message and practical response that helped me. I also quickly discovered that Wittgenstein had found this book profoundly helpful and I determined to go back and look at his thought properly. Whilst at Oxford my logic tutor had introduced me to Wittgenstein's work but I was so wildly metaphysical at the time I hadn't paid much attention to it. Now I did and was amazed and delighted, but also confused, by what I read because it cut away the possibility for all the metaphysical assumptions that had come to be so central to my understanding of in what God consisted and, of course, the God to whose call I was still trying to respond. Matters got significantly "worse" when I started to read James C. Edwards' wonderful book "The Plain Sense of Things: the fate of religion in an age of normal nihilism".

Though working through this book's implications was somewhat traumatic I was also thrilled that Edwards was able to unpick for me the metaphysical mess of our age and culture and simultaneously introduce me, in an accessible and very practical way, to the work of Heidegger - a philosopher whose work had seemed utterly impenetrable when I'd first come across it one very cold winter in 1984 whilst I was a music student snowed into a house just outside Colchester and "Being and Time" was, I kid you not, the only book ready to hand! Anyway, Edwards sent me back to this book and also Heidegger's later work with  passionate urgency.

The first thing that all this did for me was definitively kill off the God of the philosophers - or rather help me accept that this God was dead. I do not pretend that this was anything other than a profoundly difficult time for me and it took me to a place and time that your question (perhaps) imagines me as being in. But Mark Wrathall's words that I quoted in last week's address kept coming back to me:

. . . the loss of belief in a metaphysical god that is the ground of all existence and intelligibility, and even the loss of belief in a creator God who produced the heaven and the earth is not a disaster. [In fact the] absence of foundational God [can] open up access to richer and more relevant ways for us to understand creation and for us to encounter the divine and the sacred. Thus, the death of the philosopher's God may have provided us with new and more authentic possibilities for understanding religion that we blocked by traditional metaphysical theology (or onto-theology).'

I began to realise that I experienced this as true. As far as the metaphysical discourse about God was concerned, whenever I used it's language and assumptions, I found I could now be nothing other than an atheist. I felt - and still feel - that it is important to be absolutely clear and explicit about this. However, the phenomenon of my religious experience (that I mention above) - the experience that called me into the world in a radically changed way - remained very real and, not only that but it also began to deepen and feel increasingly authentic. As I say, I don't claim to be back with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob but it is to be back with something *like* that God, or that kind of understanding of the divine. Last Sunday's address was but one small attempt to try and explore this in the context of Advent and waiting.

A helpful guide through all this has been Gianni Vattimo who feels - and I strongly resonate with his thought - that his "discovery of the substantial link between the history of Christian revelation and the history of nihilism means nothing more and nothing less than a confirmation of the validity of Heidegger's discourse on the end of metaphysics" ("Credere di Credere", Eng. trans. "Belief",  p.40). I find his ideas concerning (so-called) weak thought and ethics very helpful - especially it's tendency towards a non-violent and democratic ethics centred on I Corinthians 13.

Perhaps the best description of where I find myself today is summed up beautifully and succinctly by Vattimo in his brief and touchingly personal book called "Credere di Credere" (Eng. trans. "Belief"):

'I am aware that I have a preference for Nietzsche and Heidegger in part (or perhaps above all) because, over against other philosophical projects that I have come across, their thesis, based on a given interpretation of their work, seems to be above all in harmony with a specifically Christian religious substratum that has remained a living part of me. Moreover, that it has become present again is due at least in part due to the fact that, having distanced myself from the Christian inheritance (or so I believed), it was above all with the writings of Nietzsche and Heidegger that I spent my time and in their light that I lived and interpreted my existential condition in late-modernity. In short: I have begun to take Christianity seriously again because I have constructed a philosophy inspired by Nietzsche and Heidegger, and have interpreted my experience in the contemporary world in the light of it; yet in all probability I constructed my philosophy with a preference for these authors precisely because I started with the Christian inheritance, which I have found again, though, in reality, I had never abandoned it' (p.33). 

Sixteenth-century Polish Socinian medallion depicting Jesus
This last point allows me to conclude (for the moment at least) with your feeling that I am somehow attempting to "graft" what you call my "humanism" to the "Christian path." In truth I find that my path remains a Christian one and one that find I have never abandoned. Early in life I had a profound experience of something like the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and I responded to it in a wholly Christian fashion by vowing to be a follower of Christ. That path has had moments of profound doubt ("My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me" - Ps 22:1 and Matt. 27:46) and has led me to all kinds of unexpected places, people and ideas. It has led me, too, even to deny my Christianity many more times than Peter ever did (Matt. 26:75). And, in the dark shadow of the death of the God of the philosophers, I even believed at times that I had abandoned (lost) this path. But, as I hope my inadequate words above show (though I am acutely aware that they may be too flowery for your liking) on coming to a place and a time where the cock-crowing (Matt. 26:75) that is the work of Heidegger et. al. can be heard, I am awakened to a realisation that I have never abandoned my Christian inheritance. Far, far from it - I find I am still responding as faithfully as I can to my initial call into the Christian ministry and my discipleship of Christ.

I realise this response will simply irritate the hell out of many kinds of atheists, humanists and Christians in countless ways but, as Luther is reputed to have said: "Hier stehe Ich; Ich kann nicht anders".

I hope this helps somehow.
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