When is a table not a table? When, perhaps, it's an altar?—Some Christian a/theist thoughts inspired by Heidegger and Bonhoeffer

The apse with the altar table in the Cambridge Unitarian Church

Psalm 43:4

Then I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy; and I will praise you with the harp, O God, my God.

From Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison (SCM, London 1971, p. 360)

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.

From the Der Spiegel Interview with Martin Heidegger (1966)

SPIEGEL: Can the individual still influence this network of inevitabilities at all, or can philosophy influence it, or can they both influence it together in that philosophy leads one individual or several individuals to a certain action?

HEIDEGGER: Those questions bring us back to the beginning of our conversation. If I may answer quickly and perhaps somewhat vehemently, but from long reflection: Philosophy will not be able to bring about a direct change of the present state of the world. This is true not only of philosophy but of all merely human meditations and endeavours. Only a god can still save us. I think the only possibility of salvation left to us is to prepare readiness, through thinking and poetry, for the appearance of the god or for the absence of the god during the decline; so that we do not, simply put, die meaningless deaths, but that when we decline, we decline in the face of the absent god.

SPIEGEL: Is there a connection between your thinking and the emergence of this god? Is there, as you see it, a causal connection? Do you think we can get this god to come by thinking?

HEIDEGGER: We cannot get him to come by thinking. At best we can prepare the readiness of expectation.

SPIEGEL: But can we help?

HEIDEGGER: The preparation of readiness could be the first step. The world cannot be what and how it is through human beings, but neither can it be so without human beings.


When is a table not a table? When, perhaps, it's an altar?—Some Christian a/theist thoughts inspired by Heidegger and Bonhoeffer

John's picture of the church with me standing outside
John Dillistone’s presentation to Susanna and me this week of his picture with it’s interesting perspectival and symbolic take on our church building set me thinking again about my own perspectives on this edifice, especially some of the theological symbols and meanings that have been, are, and might yet be found within it.

I could take almost any aspect of the building and draw out of it something of theological interest but, today, I’d like to concentrate on just one aspect that has long puzzled me, namely the table behind me.

When I became minister here in 2000 I continued to use the table in almost exactly the same way it was used before my coming. It is, as you can see, at the east end of the church — the traditional “holy end” of a church — and it had then, and has now, flowers and lit candles upon it and, following the offering the little collection bag is put there too as a symbolic sacrifice and offering. The only change to things has been that I now light the candles myself at the very start of the service when, in earlier years, they were lit before the service began. It seems that upon it there has never been placed a cross.

Now, for my entire life I’ve been involved with churches in one way or another so, when I saw first this table, it’s placement and how it was being used, I took it to be, despite the absence of a cross, quite unproblematically an altar. Indeed even the light switches in the vestibule for turning on the lights above it bore, and still bear, a little label upon which you will find, misspelled, the word “alter” (sic).

But one Sunday, only a week or so into my ministry, in the presence of a very elderly and senior member of the congregation, I had occasion to refer to this table by that name — an altar. He fairly bit my head off and, in no uncertain terms, informed me that it “was not an altar but the table for the flowers”.

His vehement response led me to wonder whether something had occurred in the church’s early history which had never had the opportunity to be properly or fully to be worked through? At the time, however, what that might have been was not at all clear to me. Anyway, it certainly made me ask why a liberal protestant church such as this, founded in only 1904 and with bespoke buildings dating from only 1923 (the hall) and 1927 (the church), had decided to place an altar in a very conventional, even Catholic pre-Vatican II position, and then never used it as an actual communion table?

It was a puzzle but, to be frank about it, at that point in my ministry I had more pressing issues to deal with than ferreting around in the archives and so I simply put the question to one side.

The new communion table in use in a meeting of MPs and a local LGBT group
A few years later, when interest was beginning to be expressed by members of the congregation about having an occasional communion service it was obvious that we couldn’t (and wouldn’t) use the official “communion” table — in passing, I had in the meantime accidentally discovered from the report prepared for the sixteenth AGM of this church held on March 11th 1923 that the table was gifted explicitly as a “communion table” — and that it would be more appropriate to hold our communion service around a small table placed in the centre of the church. Before a donor kindly gifted us this fine bespoke communion table we took to using the little folding table now found in the vestibule.

Now, around this same time (perhaps 2003/4) we were visited by an architectural historian — alas, I forget his name — who was researching the work of the architect of this building, R. P. Jones. Given my earlier experience I asked the historian why he thought this relatively modern Unitarian congregation had decided to commission and build a church with a high altar?

His answer was as follows. Following the end of the First World War many liberal churches were literally reeling with shock and disappointment for, not only had they lost many members in the war (as had, of course, all churches) but their liberal, optimistic theology which expressed a belief in the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, the leadership of Jesus, salvation by character, and the continuity of human development in all worlds (or the progress of mankind onward and upward forever), had begun to appear to them and others as perhaps no more than a mere whistling in the wind. By 1919 Matthew Arnold’s “sea of faith” had withdrawn even further than its lows of the 1860s, and the death of God, first proclaimed in 1882 by Nietzsche, became ever more plausible to more and more people.

This led, the historian suggested, to a number of congregations deciding to build churches which deliberately harked back to safer, more secure times in Christian history. At their most ineffective, these buildings enabled a congregation merely to pretend their theology wasn’t in real trouble and their that God was not dead and still dwelt on the altars in their holy places but, at best, it gave a congregation some time and real breathing space more slowly to work through and come to terms with both the withdrawal of their liberal “sea of faith” and the shocking death of their liberal God.

Having heard what he said — and found it generally plausible — it seemed to me that, perhaps, the meaning of the table here had been from the very start pulling in two different directions simultaneously. On the one hand, for some members of the church, it was the site of some sill hoped for divine presence (and so was an altar) and, for others, it was the site where the absence of God was viscerally felt and seen (and so was “just a table for flowers”).

Now last week, with the arrival of John’s painting and the enquiring and reflective mood it put me into, I decided that it was finally time to look properly through the earliest minute books of the congregation which start from 1908 (four years after the congregation informally founded) on to 1928, the date of when church was officially opened. NB. the hall, by the way, was opened in 1923 and — liturgically speaking anyway — it was laid out and used in exactly the same way as the church).

Well, I discovered that the general trajectory outlined by the architectural historian can, indeed, be found playing out in this congregation and the minute books tell us just enough to fill out this trajectory with a little more detail which goes a long way in explain why, perhaps, the tension about the altar table I have just noted was felt even more greatly here than was perhaps usual in other churches and which spilled out so vehemently through that very elderly member of the congregation with whom I began.

It turns out that between between 1907 and 1919, the influential founding figures of this congregation who drove the project to build this hall and church in the 1920s were very taken by two ministers whom they wanted to preach and minister to the congregation which was then still meeting in the old Assembly Rooms in Downing Street. The first of these was the Revd J. M. Lloyd Thomas who was a hugely controversial figure within Unitarian circles at the time because he was supportive of the Revd R. J. Campell’s “New Theology” movement and who had published, in 1907, a book supportive of this project called “A Free Catholic Church”. In such a church, he believed, would “ultimately be found an Ideal which, if courageously worked out, will transcend or reconcile the oppositions not merely of Anglicanism and Dissent, but of Romanism and Protestantism” (p. 3). In short, Thomas, like Campbell, desired the development of a church which could combine in some fashion Catholic liturgy and practice with the kind of liberal non-doctrinal approach to belief and theology favoured by liberal Protestants, including the Unitarians. However, they couldn’t get Thomas to take their services but he did attend a congregational meeting on March 7th 1909 to express his regret at this situation, saying that, alas, his Nottingham congregation “could not spare him.” The minute book also tells us that “He went on to speak of Mr Campbell’s Religious Movement and urged that it should be supported by Unitarians.”

Having failed to persuade Thomas to come they then succeeded in securing the services of a certain Revd Edward William Lummis from Leicester, Great Meeting, to preach for them for two terms in 1909/1910 and he’s on the scene, off-and-on, until May 1914 after which he resigns and shortly afterwards returns to the Church of England.

What is important to see here is that the theology of Thomas and Lummis strongly indicates that the founders of this congregation were very predisposed to building a church with a high altar dedicated in some fashion to a liberal God who would “transcend or reconcile the oppositions not merely of Anglicanism and Dissent, but of Romanism and Protestantism.”

But then, in 1914, the First World War comes and the minute books clearly reveal that the congregation struggles greatly during this time. Indeed, it took away the congregation’s leading figure and inspiration, a certain Lieutenant-Colonel Frederick John Marrian Stratton DSO OBE TD DL FRS PRAS (1881–1960), Professor of Astrophysics (1909) here at the University of Cambridge from 1928 to 1947. It is his portrait which hangs centrally over our fireplace in the common room.

But, by July 1919 he’s back from the war and it is at this point that we first read of their plans to build a hall.

So, we now know about Stratton’s pre-war theological inclinations but to this knowledge we should add something about his war service. Commissioned as a major, he became Officer Commanding (Signals) of the 20th Divisional Signal Company, Royal Engineers, and took his company to France in the summer of 1915 to join the BEF. He was awarded a DSO in 1917 and promoted to acting lieutenant-colonel on 22 July, becoming Assistant Director Signals (later chief signals officer) of the 19th Corps BEF under Lt-Gen. Watts. He was mentioned in dispatches five times and was praised by his fellow officers for his efficiency and perpetual cheerfulness, managing to remain alert even after days without sleep. In other words he was one of the many who saw, first hand, something of the horrors of this war and in him — our congregation’s founder — I would suggest, we have the paradox of our altar table present to us in human form.

I don’t think it is too much of a stretch of the imagination to say that our altar table has continued to encode for us the trauma and paradox of twentieth-century liberal religion experienced by someone like Stratton that played out in, on the one hand, a strong desire to continue to believe in the possibility of a good and just God and to raise up for him an altar where one could go, like the Psalmist, with exceeding joy to give praise with the harp and, on the other, the need to raise up an empty, memorial table upon which to place flowers of remembrance to acknowledge the possibility of the death and absence of the very same God.

The altar/communion table in the Cambridge Unitarian Church
I have been fortunate to discover that my own species of Christian a/theism, drawing strongly as it does upon the insights of people like Bonhoeffer and Heidegger, some of whose relevant words you heard in our readings, allows me to approach this highly unusual altar without feeling the need collapsing it’s foundational paradox because here I personally come each day to “prepare readiness, through thinking and poetry, for the appearance of the god or for the absence of the god”. Here I stand each day “in the presence of God who makes us live in the world without the God-hypothesis.”

In doing this I hope I am able to honour well and honestly our congregation’s traumatic beginnings and also, in so doing, leaving open a clearing in which an, as yet unimagined, god may yet still presence.

So that’s what I’m doing when I stand before this altar but it seems important to ask you now, what is it that you think you are doing when you sit or stand before it?

As a congregation it seems that, as a whole, we’ve never agreed on what it is we are doing — and I suspect we never will — but that, perhaps (and for good or ill), is one of our unique religious characteristics . . .