Tuesday, 27 November 2012

The Essence of the Liberal Position

The essence of the liberal position is that sin followed death. This thought has followed me around since I was about 18. I became a Christian in a classic Evangelical manner and I do not begrudge that. I was at the Leys School in Cambridge. It was a good Methodist school and in the mid 1970s some remarkable Christians were there. I pay tribute to the Reverend Chris Morley, Sister Alison Bagnall (sadly deceased), friends who I made like Adrian Wykes now a teacher in Luxembourg and Philip Parker now an Anglican minister. I had at previous schools gone out of my way to avoid becoming a Christian, rejecting the peer group pressures to be confirmed. I saw in these people something different, they loved and gave time to others when there was no demand that they should do. I realised that if I accepted Christianity, it was because it said something about the supreme importance and nature of love that I would not find elsewhere. I stick with that today. I was sufficiently enthusiastic to decide to do an RE A level (in which I got a C) and then went onto Durham University where I gained a BA 2:1 in theology and an MA in the subject.

By that time I had realised that whilst I might be into Christianity for the love, I was not into it for the Science. I was a keen geographer and as the years passed realised one of my Christian heroes who was the poet W. H. Auden was also an able geologist. At Durham I knocked about the same Pennine lead mines as he had. When introduced to the notion of Enlightenment, I had no hiccup in seeing myself as an Enlightenment man. I had done a medieval history A level and had learnt much about the power politics of the papacy.

So here we are in 2012. The papacy in its defence of the male and its readiness to deconstruct Vatican II does not seem so far from itself 500 years past. A remarkable outflanking operation by two lunatic fringes of the Church of England has demonstrated to the whole nation that it too can be ramped backwards in time. At Shepherds Dene (an Anglican retreat house in rural Northumberland) I picked up Don Cupitt's 2008 book The Meaning of the West a week or so past. I realised it would sit well with The Myth of God Incarnate (also SCM). My copy of that reveals I bought it at Cambridge as an A level student in 1977.

There you have it, there is a timeframe of liberal progress or not. A liberal theologian like Cupitt has used that time to leave his Anglican orders and see in Western Secular Democracy the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God as anticipated by Christ. I cannot quite get there. I do not think Christ was a total "rationalist", he believed in something "super". I am not sure what that is, I don't know what happened in the Resurrection. I believe something strange must have happened to inspire this defeated group of people. I suspect it is connected to the nature of love.

At which point we must turn back to nature and my opening thought. Despite my liberal nature we semi-regularly attend Stocksfield Baptist Church and spent last weekend with 40 other folk at Bassenfell Christian Centre. I don't go because of the theology, I go because of the people. There are folk there who really do think that until man sinned there was no death in the world. It seems to me that Genesis is quite unambiguous about that (and for Good Measure Woman misled the poor man and so should have the pain of childbirth increased by God Almighty). Now I don't hack any of that. I don't hack Abraham and Isaac as other than a rather bizarre story tending to child abuse. I don't think that the tablets of the law were supernaturally carved from stone although I think it very likely they did exist. I do think St Paul would be horrified at the notion of women's ministers and Bishops. And he would be horrified at what I think to his saying about "Can the pot say to the potter why have you made me thus?". The 17 year old me studying Romans back then in 1977 realised I was not with Paul then.

It is at the essence of enlightenment man to say that the pot will address the potter with a why and the pot may even deny the existence of a potter. Why? Because the pot is self conscious and in the Enlightenment discovered the whole procedure of evidence based learning. It is that which at the everyday level every element of modern society relies on. Enlightenment leads to emancipation and that took us to abolition of slavery, votes for women, the sexual revolution. and today's debates about Gays, Bishops etc. All of this: where you think death came into the world thing (your view of Genesis) unpacks the rest. It is an important matter that science based evolutionary thinking respecting the geological record is taught. The evidence is overwhelming even if the Science may well not be complete. And once you start here with a revision of Genesis, the rest follows. People have control of their bodies, birth control is both a moral and a practical Great Good. A church which condemns it should be roundly criticised. This though does not require light views on abortion, just sensible ones. Who wants to defend the Catholic Church in Ireland in Galway this November? Who wants to defend the Anglican church's refusal to ordain women as bishops? Who wants to deny a gay couple who seek God's blessing on an intent to live together for live a Christian marriage?

You will ask me where does liberalism end and I will answer, I cannot know, only Christ's spirit might. I will also turn back to my own MA in 1983-83. One of its key texts remains as pertinent now as then. David Lodge's novel How Far Can You Go? I found then, and subsequently with W. H. Auden, that literature can sometimes teach better theology than the theologians. There is a mechanism at work here which reaches back to Christ. It reaches back to Peter denying Christ three times. It reaches back into the nature of cross and resurrection. Perhaps to find the resurrection life anew the institutions of Church will be left to wither by their God and their society if they refuse to adjust to the enlightenment. The issues of the 1500s are still with us alive and kicking in the 21st century. My faith must remain one of enlightenment man and I must hope that grace is with that. For if there is not a God of Grace, a God who can work miracles in individual's behaviour then the outlook for a world whose population imperils human existence is not great. Our science may be fantastic. In what way are our basic morals any different in 2012 than in AD30?

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