A Faith of the Faithless — Some thoughts arising from a singing of Amazing Grace

On Monday morning an email popped into my inbox from a trusted friend which simply read, “Listen, watch” — apart from these words all it contained was a link. It took me to the closing moments of President Obama’s eulogy last week for the South Carolina state senator and minister, the Revd Clementa Pinckney, who was killed at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church along with eight other churchgoers two weeks ago.

Completely unexpectedly, I found my heart racing and I was genuinely moved to tears when President Obama, after a good twenty second pause at the very end of his eulogy which had concluded with the words, “Amazing Grace, Amazing Grace” began to sing on his own that most powerful and poignant of songs.

It goes without saying that the very large congregation quickly joined in and, within seconds, they were in full flow. As the verse finished Obama then powerfully began to list the names of those who had been shot saying after each one that they “found that grace.” His manner of doing this displayed a deep connection with some of the great preachers of the African-America Christian tradition. But, despite this, I feel it is also possible to detect in his words a hint that Obama did not simply slip back into an old-school, supernaturalist Christianity but, in fact, offered us a glimpse of a powerful, progressive, this-worldly, religious naturalism. However, before I say more about this I want to bring something else into play.

A couple of weeks ago I read a very interesting essay that was sent to me under the heading: “Can there ever be a truly successful, secular revolution?” As a religious naturalist and minister of religion who remains actively involved in secular, progressive, political circles, this is a question I’m always asking. I regularly look around me at the current secular, civic set-up (with it’s highly destructive obsession with endless growth and the acquisition of things, and also with its primary ideas of value and worth derived from the world of neoliberal finance) and, for the life of me, I cannot see how the current generation of clearly non-religious, highly technocratic, professional and supposedly progressive political parties and politicians involved with our current form of secularism are suited to bringing about the kind of radical social and environmental change we so desperately need, not only for our own human well-being but also for the well-being of the whole ecosystem of earth of which we are an inextricable part.

On the other hand the idea of our own politics and politicians becoming explicitly religious disturbs me greatly. “IS” represent, of course, an extreme example of this theologisation of politics, but we don’t need to go to those extremes to feel concerned and, although I never had any sympathy with the New Labour project, I still resonate strongly with the feelings of Alastair Campbell who, back in 2003, famously told an interviewer who had just asked Tony Blair a question about his Christian faith that, “We don’t do God.”

With that thought in mind, let’s now turn properly to the essay asking whether there can ever be a truly successful, secular revolution?. It is actually titled, “Will the left ever get religion?” and was written for openDemocracy.net by the writer and activist Michael Edwards. He begins by asking “Why does religion drive so many people nuts?” and he continues:

“On the surface the answer is obvious, at least for progressives — it’s because of the damage that’s been done by religion to the causes they hold dear: independence and equality for women, gay marriage and LGBTQ rights, peace and protection from zealots and fanatics, and safety in the face of sexual abuse. How come the ineffable being is always a bloke with a beard who privileges others who look the same as him? Religion has become the mother-lode of patriarchy, stupidity, homophobia and all things conservative.”

Yes, indeed. But, although I feel all these things are true, I’m a minister, and this is a church, that has consistently pushed against every single one of these things. I know, as Michael Edwards knows, that

“. . . the opposite is also true: religion gives tremendous strength and staying power to the struggle for equality and social justice. It’s a force that makes people go to jail for their beliefs, break into nuclear weapons facilities and daub biblical slogans on the walls, found social movements that change society, organize workers to stand up for their rights, and confront dictators at the cost of their own lives. Religious groups are also the mainstays of health, education, social welfare and community-level conflict prevention in many countries. . . . [For countless people] religion isn’t incidental to social change, it’s pivotal — it’s the reason why they are willing to give so much to the cause.”

It is something like this kind of positive "religious" force that I know many of us sense is entirely absent in most of our present, technocratically inclined, secular political leaders who claim to be on the progressive side of politics. They may have inherited the vocabulary of progressive action and social justice (especially in the UK from the Christian Socialist movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries) but now they talk using a dreadfully hollowed out language of abstract values that is delivered with no deep, visionary force or drive behind it — a force that is evident within religion

Of course, I say most of our political leaders on the progressive side of things, because in that extraordinary moment last week this "religious" power could, I think, clearly be seen animating Obama in Charleston.

As I have slowly, and I confess with great difficulty, worked my way through the question of the appropriate relationship between religion, theology and politics in the fifteen years I’ve been with you, and even though my own theology is by now thoroughly this-worldly and naturalist, i.e. not at all theistic and supernaturalist, I have been forced to acknowledge that something akin to religious faith, and the engagement in some kind of meaningful philosophical and theological thinking about that realm of existence about which we use the words God/the Divine/the Sacred, is indispensable to human well-being in the political and social milieu, because without this there seems to be no sustained access to some kind of vital, life-changing motive power that is able to drive truly effective and lasting progressive social and political change. As Michael Edwards notes, for deep social transformation to occur it’s not sufficient merely to engage in institutional, technocratic reform rather we must be engaged in the business of forming new kinds of people “who are willing to make sacrifices and live out their values in truly radical ways”. Religion, of course, in nearly all of its major forms, has always been about changing lives: vide Jesus’ call to “Change your life now (repent) for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”. The religious tradition we inherit in this church is all about bringing into existence a new kind of being-in-the-world and, as many of our progressive British forebears called it, bringing into existence a “New Jerusalem” (even though, for obvious modern political reasons, today we might wish to use another name for this more progressive community.)

But, although I think something like religious faith and theology must be recovered by the progressive end of the political spectrum there is little doubt in my mind that a simple revival of anything like old-school religion — Christian or otherwise — would be very dangerous for us all because it is way too wrapped up in simplistic visions of an all-powerful being, a monotheistic God who is “up there”, and who is too easily believed to be, “on our side”.

In the light of my words so far, does this mean there are before us only two responses, one of which is the need to defend a version of “evangelical secularism” whilst the other is quietly to accept the slow return to some form of “traditional theism?” Well, I don’t think so and, as you know, I think that one of the duties a modern liberal church such as our own has is to challenge all such absolute, binary positions. Thankfully, in Simon Critchley’s recent book, “Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology”, we find some help to mount a secular religious challenge to this binary position. Critchley is clear, he wishes us to reject this either/or option and to seek a third response, a “Faith of the Faithless”.

In a various earlier addresses I have tried to show why I think that, as contemporary, liberal religious people, we should actively let go of any idea that the word God refers to an interventionist monotheistic being external to ourselves whom we believe we can propitiate and enlist “on our side” and, instead, as Jesus seems to have done, come to believe that, henceforth and forever, God is present for us only in and as one’s neighbour and in the call to justice and love.

It letting go of such a mono-theistic conception of God and adopting, instead, this this-worldly human conception of the divine makes us one of Critchley’s “faithless”. But this does not for us rule out the possibility of maintaining a kind of religious naturalist, or religious humanist faith that can powerfully motivate and change us better to create a fairer, more just and loving world for all. As Critchley says: “This faith of the faithless cannot have for its object anything external to the self or subject, any external, divine command, any transcendental reality” because it is rather “a work of collective self-creation where I am smithy of my own soul and where we must all be soul-smiths, as it were” (p. 6).

We may ground this thought of Critchley’s in the words that I so often use following our own prayers: “Though we may often doubt that our prayer changes anything, let us never forget that prayer changes people and people change things”. In saying this I am agreeing with Critchley that here we are are attempting to become soul-smiths — to change ourselves into new-beings, to build that new society as religious naturalists or religious humanists — to express the faith of the faithless.

Now it seems to me that, when you come closely to examine the text of Obama’s eulogy, one can see Obama be speaking in a similar way. To be sure he references “God” many times — he has, after all, also to appeal to a very conservative religious audience as well as to people with a progressive, humanist and naturalist outlook — but this God doesn’t seem to me to be a supernatural, interventionist monotheistic one rather it is a wholly immanent, humanist conception of God. Obama finds God and God’s grace in, for example, “the light of love that shone as [those who died] opened the church doors and invited a stranger [the killer] to join in their prayer circle.” This immanent humanist God is found in the way the families of the fallen responded when they saw the killer in court — “in the midst of unspeakable grief, with words of forgiveness.” It is an immanent humanist conception of God found in “how the city of Charleston”, how “the state of South Carolina, how the United States of America” responded — “not merely with revulsion at his [the killer’s] evil act, but with big-hearted generosity and, more importantly, with a thoughtful introspection and self-examination that we so rarely see in public life.”

Do not Obama’s words here powerfully echo Critchley’s words regarding the faith of the faithless, namely, a religious naturalism or religious humanism, which is a work of collective self-creation where we are all smithies of our own souls? Indeed might not Obama’s eulogy be a quiet call (to those with ears to hear) to become soul-smiths ourselves and make of ourselves and our neighbours (enemy and friend alike) new and better beings?

Now, I realise this eulogy might just be great rhetoric from a great rhetorician and I am seriously misreading President Obama who is, in fact, evoking the God of theism. If he's doing that then I'm worried.

But, in the end (at this moment in time) a close reading of the text makes me feel that Obama really did express a profound faith in the belief that God’s amazing grace is to found only in and as one’s neighbour and in the call to justice and love. If I'm right here, in a major political setting, we catch just a little glimpse of of what a powerful "faith of the faithless" might look like.