A confession: How I became an erratic religious radical

Wells-next-the-Sea beach at low tide
Whilst staying in Wells for the last two weeks on a short break from church work I read the March newsletter so ably put together by our Chairman, Andrew Bethune. With me being away it fell to Andrew to say something about the Good Friday communion service and, in so doing, he quoted the Dutch Remonstrant Church’s statement of faith which I had posted on my blog alongside a notice about the Christmas Eve Communion service of 2013.

Seeing such a clearly liberal Protestant, Christian statement presented to you under my name (not incorrectly I hasten to add) made me sit back and think again, as I so often do, about my very troubled relationship with Christianity. It’s always been a hard subject to talk about coherently because there seem to me to be in play so many apparently contradictory factors.

Now I’m not sure I’m going to succeed in talking coherently about it in this very personal, confessional post but by coincidence, shortly before the newsletter was published, I read a very fine piece in the Guardian (Wednesday 18th February 2105) which offered me a route into trying to speak understandably about this matter. The article, by Yanis Varoufakis (the current Greek finance minister) was called, “How I became an erratic Marxist”. I would have read the piece on that day anyway because I’ve been impressed with him for quite a while now but I had to read it immediately because the title offered such a good description of me for I, too, would describe myself as an “erratic Marxist”, and erratic in very similar ways to Varifoukis.

But I bring up Varoufoukis’ piece here not to talk about Marxist politics per se (although it should be said my own politics and religion are intimately intertwined), but because I could see that there existed in it certain similarities between his analysis of the current political and financial situation in Europe and my own analysis as, what you might call, an “erratic religious radical”, concerning the future of radical, liberal religion. I feel the need to point to these similarities because it helps me indicate to you exactly where, as a current, settled (if erratic) minister, my own hope for the future of our religious tradition lies.

So, what do I think are the similarities between Varoufakis’ piece and my own views about the future of radical, liberal religion? To show this I’ll begin with his introductory four paragraphs. Here’s the first:

“In 2008, capitalism had its second global spasm. The financial crisis set off a chain reaction that pushed Europe into a downward spiral that continues to this day. Europe’s present situation is not merely a threat for workers, for the dispossessed, for the bankers, for social classes or, indeed, nations. No, Europe’s current posture poses a threat to civilisation as we know it.”

Keeping only to the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, it seems clear to me that the liberal Protestant Christian tradition has also suffered two major spasms. The first occurred over the period extending from the end of the First World War to the ending of the Second. The second spasm followed the events of September 11th, 2001. It is clear that the failure of liberal Protestant Christianity to offer it’s people a convincing, practical religious and ethical way to find meaning and worth in the modern post-world war and post-9/11 world have all helped push the tradition into a downward spiral that continues to this day. Although it might seem at first excessive to borrow Varoufakis’ words and suggest that the collapse of the liberal Protestant tradition, like capitalism, is also “not merely a threat for workers, for the dispossessed, for the bankers, for social classes or, indeed, nations” but also “poses a threat to civilisation as we know it”, in truth I think these words can be so borrowed. Liberal Protestant Christianity has always been intimately bound up with the development of liberal social democracy across Europe and it was in the hands of many Christian social democrats that capitalism was able to gain such hegemonic power across Europe.

Moving on, Varoufakis then writes,

“If my prognosis is correct, and we are not facing just another cyclical slump soon to be overcome, the question that arises for radicals is this: should we welcome this crisis of European capitalism as an opportunity to replace it with a better system? Or should we be so worried about it as to embark upon a campaign for stabilising European capitalism?”

This helps me pose an analogous question for religious radicals; should we welcome this crisis of European, liberal Protestant Christianity as an opportunity to replace it with a better system?

Now, in the current financial and political context of which Varoufakis asks, as you heard, whether in the light of the overall situation we shouldn’t be promoting some wholly new, radical alternative to capitalism but should, instead, “be so worried . . . as to embark upon a campaign for stabilising European capitalism”? I hope it is clear that for a Marxist to ask this question, let alone for them publicly to articulate it, is as close as they can get to uttering a blasphemy.

In my own religious context, the similarity plays out in my  overwhelming need to ask whether, in the light of the overall situation, we shouldn’t be promoting some wholly new, radical religious alternative but, instead, should be so worried as to embark upon a campaign for stabilising liberal Protestant Christianity?

Publicly articulating this in a radical religious movement that, understandably, and for reasons I mostly share, would for the most part desperately like to cut lose from the strictures and self-evident contradictions and flaws of Christianity, is also to come close to uttering a blasphemy; so why do I say it? Why do I continue to insist that, as our much argued over denominational object says, we should be “uphold[ing] the liberal Christian tradition”? This becomes clearer when we turn to paragraph three of Varoufakis.

“To me, the answer is clear. Europe’s crisis is far less likely to give birth to a better alternative to capitalism than it is to unleash dangerously regressive forces that have the capacity to cause a humanitarian bloodbath, while extinguishing the hope for any progressive moves for generations to come.”

It seems to me that right now in Europe, the crisis in European liberal Protestant Christianity is at the moment, similarly, far less likely to give birth to a better, radical, liberal religious alternative than it is likely to contribute in a small, but still very real way, to the unleashing of the “dangerously regressive forces” of which Varoufakis speaks.

Varoufakis speaks, of course, in the much more highly charged context of Greece where the neo-Nazi group, the “Golden Dawn” genuinely threatens to occupy a central place in the culture. But, what is true in Greece is also increasingly true across the whole of Europe — the extreme right are beginning to make ever further inroads to the centre of European politics.

This acutely uncomfortable realisation has forced me for the past fifteen years to see if I can find any kind of honourable intellectually and spiritually honest way to remain not only engaged with, if highly critical of, the liberal Protestant Christian tradition but, like Varoufakis in his own current political context, even to act as one of its accredited ministers.

This stance has often been far from easy to maintain and its never been a comfortable position to be in; I need change only one word of Varoufakis’ fourth paragraph to make it wholly my own:

“For this view I have been accused, by well-meaning radical voices, of being ‘defeatist’ and of trying to save an indefensible European [Christian] (Varoufakis has here the word “socioeconomic”) system. This criticism, I confess, hurts. And it hurts because it contains more than a kernel of truth.”

His words remind me that I’m consciously (though always regretfully) playing a dangerously ambiguous game caught in a no-man’s land half-way between a generally liberal Protestant Christian establishment (in which I no longer have any genuine faith — at least not in its metaphysics) on one side, and the radical, liberal religious, naturalistic tradition desirous of leaving Christianity behind (which I love and would prefer to see come about), on the other.

I often lie awake at night (and I do not exaggerate here) worrying that this makes me a kind of traitor to the radical, liberal, naturalistic tradition and this hurts — it hurts because because the accusation contains more than a kernel of truth.

But despite this I find have no choice but to say it is clear (to me anyway) that, alone, the radical, liberal religious alternatives as they are currently being articulated — including the naturalistic one I’m tentatively trying to articulate with you — just aren’t yet up to the job in hand. And what is the job in hand?

Well, it is nothing less than helping to secure European civilisation as we currently know it which, despite all its many evident faults, is surely a better thing to support than any alternative which threatens to help a state of affairs develop that is only likely to encourage the rise of nationalism and/or certain kinds of anarchy with all their associated religious and political tendencies to oppression and violence.

The painful truth is that for many reasons — honourable and dishonourable, with committed sins of omission and commission — the difficult, long-term philosophical, theological and political groundwork that would have made it possible for us to articulate and develop across Europe a workable liberal, radical religious alternative capable of doing the heavy lifting that is required by any major civilisation, simply hasn’t been done by us and we going to have to admit this major failing. Short of, 'God' forbid, the actual collapse of western civilisation and the final demise of our own religious tradition (which would, of course, change everything and render all my words in this piece obsolete) liberal religious radicals need, in my opinion, to acknowledge that we have little choice but to find ways to continue to work from within our older forms of religion for some considerable time yet. It is inevitable that, because of this stance, some in my own circles have said that this makes me a defeatist.

So, is all the above not to say that the future seems bleak for the development of a radical, liberal, naturalistic religion that so many of us hope to see come about? Well, yes and no.

I’ve just outlined for you above something of the “yes” answer. So what about the “no”? Well, later in his essay Varoufakis wisely makes the following point:

“A radical social theorist can challenge the economic mainstream in two different ways, I always thought. One way is by means of immanent criticism. To accept the mainstream’s axioms and then expose its internal contradictions. To say: ‘I shall not contest your assumptions but here is why your own conclusions do not logically flow on from them.’ This was, indeed, Marx’s method of undermining British political economics. He accepted every axiom by Adam Smith and David Ricardo in order to demonstrate that, in the context of their assumptions, capitalism was a contradictory system. The second avenue that a radical theorist can pursue is, of course, the construction of alternative theories to those of the establishment, hoping that they will be taken seriously.”

As I mentioned earlier, although we have collectively put forward many alternative religious theories over the years, we haven’t put in the right kind of groundwork that makes them in any way persuasive; they are just not good enough for the huge task in hand. But Varoufakis points out another reason why the second avenue is, in truth, closed to us for the foreseeable future. He writes:

“My view on this dilemma has always been that the powers that be are never perturbed by theories that embark from assumptions different to their own. The only thing that can destabilise and genuinely challenge mainstream, neoclassical economists is the demonstration of the internal inconsistency of their own models.” 

It seems to me that what is true of “mainstream, neoclassical economists” seems also to be true of all those who think in mainstream, liberal Christian ways — and whether they are doing this thinking within formal belief settings (i.e. churches) or in secular settings where Christianity (at least it’s basic ethics and morals) has become almost completely cultural (i.e. shorn of explicit metaphysical belief).

If, in the present situation, we truly want to succeed in finally bringing about some new kind of liberal, radical religion I would argue we must engage in more effective forms of immanent criticism. We need to see how just how powerful it can be “to accept the mainstream’s axioms and then expose its internal contradictions. To say: ‘I shall not contest your assumptions but here is why your own conclusions do not logically flow on from them.’”

In maintaining my own, and this church’s, relationship with the liberal Christian tradition I have consistently tried to do just this. I think it is possible to show that this tradition is still capable of being unfolded dialectically into an increasingly radical, post-Christian, secular form of religious naturalism. (This should explain, I hope, my particular love of the (decidedly erratic) Marxist thinker, Ernst Bloch, who, to my mind, remains one of our culture’s most under-valued and explored religious and political thinkers (one who intimately conjoined Marxist, Jewish and Christian perspectives)).

This process can best be affected (in my opinion) by engaging in a conscious process of “Verwindung” rather than “Überwindung” — a process of overcoming Christianity not by replacing it wholesale with some equal and opposite religious naturalist doctrine (and creating just another oppressive power-bloc) but by overcoming it through a more gentle and effective dialectical process of reinterpreting, reshaping, reconfiguring Christianity.  

All of which brings me back to the Dutch Remonstrant Church’s statement of faith with which this piece began. Can I as an erratic religious radical, today, still get fully (enough) behind it? The addition of the word ‘enough’ in brackets is important here because I hope every genuine religious radical realises that all human statements (even our own most beloved ones) must remain provisional and never become absolute, because in conversation, dialectically, all positions are going to be changed in time. So can I still get fully (enough) behind it?

With the addition of the word ‘enough’ my answer is “yes” because it is a liberal Protestant (Christian) statement of faith that is clearly “on the way” and engaged in a process of verwindung not überwindung. It is a statement that openly admits the primacy, not of certainty, but of journeying wonder, vigilance and connection within a whole that is infinitely greater than what we can contain ourselves.
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