Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Having my cake and eating it – a short guide to theological obesity…

A Lecture given to the Governors of Unitarian College Manchester October 2014

I remember some years ago Mark Brummitt, who was, I think a lapsed Salvationist, preaching here in the college chapel. He began by giving thumb nail sketches of the different denominations. Baptists wore jeans and fleeces and liked water, Methodists wore flannels and sports jackets or blazers and loved committees, then he got to Unitarians, scratched his forehead and said, ‘can't get my head around them... But that's the point? Isn’t it?’
Our identity may be signaled by something superficial like our clothing but it goes deeper, much deeper. If I can misquote Paul Tillich for a moment, it emanates from the ground of our being, it signifies the essence of who we are, both individually and corporately.
And here you are. I recollect overhearing a conversation between two Unitarians. Someone had used the labels Christian Universalist and Unitarian effectively interchangeably. I might have done the same until then. But they are not the same. At least that was the contention of the protagonist on one side of this conversation. I must be careful how I use my words!
However you define yourself, Christian Universalist or Unitarian or whatever other label you adopt or refuse to accept. sooner or later questions are raised about what you believe or don’t believe. Peter Ustinov began his biography, ‘Dear me’ with an assertion that doubt is a sign of sanity.
So what do you believe?
When I studied theology in Birmingham thirty odd years ago I remember getting into an argument, no a discussion, with a Senior Lecturer, Frances Young. We had been looking at the feeding of the 5000 or the 4000, both stories are there as you know. She was adamant that there was really only one ‘feeding’ and that two stories had been constructed for theological reasons. The arguments she used were compelling. But I always have been awkward. I put it down to having had a God father who was an atheist. But to get to the point. I suggested to her that perhaps there were two feedings, at least that there might have been. You know how you feel when someone tries to undermine something in which you believe? She clearly saw me as an evangelical! ‘No! There was only one feeding’. It was at that point I discovered that there was such a thing as a fundamentalist liberal. You see, I wanted it both ways. One feeding or two, it didn’t matter to the story in the end, but the principal of admitting to what we do not know and allowing for the possibility that we might be wrong seemed to me to be crucial.
It has been suggested that the historic creeds had the purpose of ‘defining the limits of legitimate speculation rather than to make an exact and final statement of a theological position’.[1] It is that phrase, ‘defining the limits of legitimate speculation’, with which I have trouble. Are there such limits? It is interesting that one of Frances Young’s publications was The Making of the Creeds.[2] The moment that you set such limits you begin to set in place a theological position simply by accepting limitation. The Hindu Vedas have it right I think. Speaking of creation for instance we find these words:
Who really knows? Who will proclaim it?  Whence was it produced? Whence is this creation? The gods came afterwards, with the creation of this universe. Who then knows whence it has arisen? […] the one who looks down on it, in the highest heaven, only he knows – or perhaps he does not know.[3]
On the notice board in Unitarian College a few years ago was a poster. The gist of what it said was, ‘Unitarians seek after truth, but in the event of someone being sure that they have found it, they haven’t’. It felt like a home coming. But there is a problem and it is intensely human, but also semantic. 'What is truth?' Surely there must be such a thing as absolute truth? On such debate is humour founded.
I heard a radio sketch recently where two cavemen wanted to catch a Pterodactyl so it could help them to fly. But the problem is that Pterodactyls are large. One of the cavemen has an idea. When Pterodactyls are a long way off they are smaller. That’s when to catch them. The other guy points out that when they got to the Pterodactyl they would be smaller too. The response from the other cavemen, ‘Now my other idea…’
We know that what is in question here is a matter of perspective.  Our eyes tell us one thing, experience another. What are we to believe? It would seem that every truth is provisional and never absolute, that what might be true for one person might not be for another.
If all that we believe is of essence provisional, open to challenge and change, then that can be unsettling. I mean, if I have invested my entire life on developing a machine that will enable me to dangle my feet off the edge of a flat earth only to find its not flat, I not only feel impoverished, but foolish. Added to that I feel very insecure. I mean what can I believe? Is nothing sacred? Not knowing what to believe can make me feel very insecure. Often just to live we assume some things to be true. Life is easier that way. In fact, if we continued to question we would never do anything. Some folk reckon that is exactly how philosophers spend their lives, until perhaps you quote Heisenberg's uncertainty principle in the middle of a game of squash and get beaten by one!
But sometimes, at a visceral level, just to survive, I return to sentimental memories of something, not unlike father Christmas, that meet a child-like need and make me feel warm and comfortable and safe. On the radio at the end of September I heard this old carol on the Sunday Service:

As Jacob with travel was weary one day,
          at night on a stone for a pillow he lay;
          he saw in a vision a ladder so high
          that its foot was on earth and its top in the sky:
          Alleluya to Jesus who died on the tree,
          And has raised up a ladder of mercy for me,
          And has raised up a ladder of mercy for me.

It concludes…

          And when we arrive at the haven of rest
          we shall hear the glad words 'Come up hither, ye blest,
          'here are regions of light, here are mansions of bliss'.
          O who would not climb such a ladder as this?[4]
Those words have a Victorian, other-worldly feel. I like them. And so I seek to rationalize them. The ladder is life. The end is intangible even if we speak of ‘mansions of bliss’. In life we are all climbing, living. That’s life then. But the words are all metaphor. Now let me step off that cloud of unreality, back to earth, feet firmly on the ground. I guess that having a stone for a pillow can lead you to believe many things!
And so Unitarianism seemed, and I have to say, seems very attractive. Yet without being offensive, I wonder, is it attractive in the way that New Testament communism, or even Marxism, having everything in common, is attractive until we see Stalin’s take on it? You see, as I talked with Unitarians and read a small amount of Unitarian literature I was struck by the openness and freedom that was there in the romance of it. Yet soon I also became aware of the way in which the cerebral pursuit of truth, and I do not mean to be insulting here, closed off certain other avenues of truth. It is my understanding, for instance, that Unitarians no longer believe in the atonement or see a need for it? Fine. I find myself very near to that myself. ‘Imagine there’s no heaven’, ‘no hell below us’; as John Lennon sang, well okay. But then no original sin. Fine. Happy with all of that. So there is no need to be saved. Well that’s evangelical Christianity dealt with, now we can get on with really living out the love of ‘the other’, with each other, in this world today. Then onto my desk slips a dissertation which brings me up short. It was entitled, “How is 'salvation' seen in current Unitarian theologies both in terms of doctrine, and of religious and spiritual imagery within worship?” For Anna Jarvis salvation was, somehow missing. Well there’s a surprise! What I read next seemed to me to be profound. She reflects:
It was not that there were not things that I needed saving from […] nor that I could not easily see the myriad of situations that others 'needed saving from' […] but at that point I hadn't worked out how, or if, religion, faith, spirituality, could play any role in that 'salvation' or 'liberation', or whether those issues were separate, and demanded just political and social conviction and action, not any form of religious salvation.   And for a long time that was how I was happy to leave it, concentrating on 'getting through life as best I knew how'.[5]
There seemed to be a feeling here that bath water and baby had, perhaps, gone together. The dissertation explored the theme. I warmed to it because what I had learnt of Unitarianism was not just an openness to what could be believed, but a limitation expressed in relation to those things that could not be believed. I want both. I wanted the freedom of exploration, but I did not want that freedom limited by a dogmatic liberalism. ‘I wanted to have my cake and to eat it’.
Let me explain what I mean.
Humanly we seem to either live on, to quote the title of a hymn collection by Fred Kaan, ‘The only earth we know’, that is with tangible, material reality; or with a sense of ‘the other’, often expressed in terms of a metaphysical realm. To work with the latter for a moment, this realm has been visualized, some would say revealed, and imagined. It has been given form by the use of human language and art. Over time this form has been taken to represent a reality that few of us would accept as being literal, but in seeking a security of belief, for some, the pictures and images have been dogmatized. And at this point we dispose of them.
The next step is to go back to the earthly reality which is open to sensory investigation. In this we are not amoral for we do not need metaphysical models to frighten us, or even encourage us, to behave ethically and humanely, I hope. They have served humanity pretty badly so far. But let us suppose for a moment that there is still something to be gained from looking at the heroes, if that is the right word, of humanity. And as a Christian I return to Jesus, and in line, I believe, with Unitarian understanding, I see Jesus as human, no more and no less. Having been inculcated with Trinitarian doctrine it gets me off the hook of the weird linguistic gymnastics of trying to relate Father, Son and Spirit while believing in one God. Here I have simply Jesus. Much simpler and, I believe, theologically more in-keeping with the records that we have of his life as a man, born, living, dying. Lest the Trinitarian thought police are lurking here, let me say that the models of creator, liberator and spirit are not entirely wrong. They are often just profoundly unhelpful and offer an opportunity to digress from living good lives in love with our neighbours in care of the cosmos by immersing us in needless speculation into the contradictions that we ourselves have elaborated.
So let me return to Jesus. If I look at his life which ended in death, yet not without profoundly affecting those around him and countless others through two millennia, what I see at the centre is self-giving love. Don Cupitt has written of ‘solar living’, the idea that the sun gives out light and heat, energy, until finally exhausted. In the meantime all that we know in a human sense is supported by this. Using this as a metaphor Cupitt sees Jesus pouring out love to those around him until finally exhausted, dead. This does not need resurrection, but neither is it defeat. To quote an old evangelical chorus, ‘It only takes a spark to get a fire going’. By example Jesus demonstrates that this solar living, this self-giving love, is effective and sensible if being seen as self-sacrificial. Yet Cupitt also points out that we all die in the end so, in effect, we might as well burn out in loving as be snuffed out in hatred.[6]
This sets practice at the fore. It is a formula for living in the here and now. I can work with that, or I can try to.
But I have a problem. The moment I start to write a hymn I find myself going of piste, as it were. Now that could be because of the way in which, over the years, I have soaked up the metaphysical language of the Bible, of Milton, of so many other writers, preachers and poets. It probably is. But I wonder if it is more than that. Walter Brueggemann, the Old Testament scholar and theologian writes of ‘prophetic imagination’, the ability of the prophets to offer imaginative hope in words that are poetic because the medium of poetry unlocks more than simply logical, rational reason. In doing so it leads us to truths that offer hope that we most likely would not have reached through pure reason alone. Alongside this is the sense of ‘something other’ to which many people seem to be drawn, a sense that there is, perhaps, more than just this ‘only earth we know’.
As a scientist I want to hold to rigorous, investigative reason to maintain my integrity. I do not want to put limits on that investigation. I want to assert that all that I, that we, know at present is provisional and subject to change, even to being discarded altogether. Yet at the same time I want to hold open the door to the opportunity of something other, the intangible, that I can neither investigate nor envisage, that I have no wish to dogmatise nor turn into doctrine. I do not want to set up conditions of faith that must be believed, nor to limit those things that can be believed. I want to be able to be open to accept what others believe, the things spawned by imagination, the theologies of humanity, of all that has been and all that we have yet to experience or assert. I want to hold together contradictory truths in much the same way that an organic chemist allows a molecule to be at one time, one form and an opposite form, and both simultaneously.  They call it resonance.
A benzene molecule, for instance, is perpetually flipping about. Neither one thing nor the other, yet both things at the same time. It holds complete contradiction in tension. And if that is how chemists are explaining their observations of the natural world I wonder if we, in a similar way, might not hold mutually contradictory ideas and concepts in tension. The benzene molecule never falls apart, never loses its integrity. What about us in our intellectual and spiritual explorations?
In a way this is where we began isn't it? As Mark Brummitt said ‘I can't get my head around that!’ But I want to and, for integrity's sake alone, I need to.
I want to be closed to nothing, open to all things, certain about nothing, thoroughly agnostic! And all at the same time! That is why, in a religious way I want to resonate like a benzene molecule.
Coming back to that cake, I intend, for as long as I can to feast on all of this thought and exploration and discovery, with no limit or diet, until I become genuinely theologically obese.

[1] Cross.F.L. (1961) edit., The Oxford Dictionary of The Christian Church, Oxford University Press, p259.
[2] Young, F. (2002) The Making of the Creeds, New edition, SCM Press, London.
[3] Rig Veda 10.129 from O’Flaherty, W.D.(1988) Textual Sources for the study of Hinduism, Manchester University Press, p.33.
[4] Anonymous
[5] Jarvis, A., unpublished dissertation, Luther King House 2014.

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