In this book, David Hart often refers to the Sea of Faith movement and some personalities which are or were recently serving on the Network Steering Committee, so as a reviewer I must declare an interest that I am also on the same Steering Committee. He is an Anglican clergyman (Senior Anglican Chaplain to Loughborough University and Colleges) and I am not, and this makes a difference of perspective and view.
One current problem with Sea of Faith in much of the media is that it is reported as primarily Anglican based and heavily clerical. It has to be said that an Anglican cleric who writes a book like this, with its repeated and explicit denial of the existence of God, can be published as the writing may be controversial and sell. Others doing the same denial would probably be ignored. Even David Hart suggests that Sea of Faith is for contemporary Christians (p. 114). Well, if it takes Anglicans to publicise Sea of Faith ideas then so be it, but it is a Network of people who do or do not worship/ meditate and who may be Christian or of any faith and none.
Another general media impression is that of the Network being an almost 'Militant' like organisation commanding a higher loyalty, infiltrating into bodies like the Church of England, meeting separately and subverting. The book itself refers to Don Cupitt's own strategies of staying in the church (evasion, deception and organised dissent), especially for those clergypeople staying in (p. 76). Anglicans, in fact, organise their own defences; Sea of Faith itself only joins in any debate when it is misrepresented. The rest is up to individuals.
Although this book will have special relevance for non-realist or anti-realist clergy, much relevance for Anglicans and some interest for others, it does serve as one view of and, in some cases, even a meditation on, non-realist Sea of Faith related themes. In the first chapter, What is 'non-realist' faith?, his non-realist position is given, rather than argued for in competition with realism or semi-realism, and this does go on to allow for a broader sweep of issues than with Anthony Freeman's God in Us (SCM, 1993).
If one defines 'postmodernist' (the grounding of the book) as 'truth is not fixed but like a story', then this is underlined by frequent references to literature and the arts. It is the arts which he uses to back his position. Religious history and philosophy are there, but not central. It is like saying creativity itself is the explanation for things, and religion and truth is all about human creativity.
So in the second chapter, The resurrection and the dead, David Hart quickly denies a supernatural element in the first Easter events, and then argues that in experience, painting, poetry and music (as selected) the cross combines with resurrection, and that out of despair comes newness - often unexpected - to carry on and build life. This begs the question whether this is a natural law in life or simply the artists' re-use of the Judaeo-Christian tradition as a pattern to shape the world. It must be the latter or it would not be postmodern! Well, of course, one might ask a circular ¼So what?½ or equally say that despair and elation need a skilful meditative attitude so as to effect some control over and build on the pattern of causal relationships of 'karma'. He might not deny this pattern, but does not consider alternative perspectives of darkness and newness. He does argue that a better vision of resurrection today is a 'chiaroscuro of colour' (p. 48), as in the John Piper window of Robinson College, Cambridge, rather than the William Holman Hunt painting of Keble College, Oxford, with a period piece Jesus in the middle, both being called The Light of the World.
I like his chapter on the body. He distrusts, as I do, the sweeping family values ideology affecting life in ordinary culture, and indeed warns against liberal theology in that it is too positive about the culture (p. 62). He simply accepts all kinds of fluid and varying relationships between people, at different degrees of the erotic and friendly according to the (again) creative state of things between people. He even suspects that homosexuals copying heterosexual marriage patterns may not, in fact, be appropriate (p. 63). Such is not to be ruled out, but sexual stereotyping should be avoided. What is missing from this chapter is the economics of relationships, that as our economy becomes increasingly based on uncertain short termism in the labour market, and valuable careers decline, so will conservative stable long term family life decline and people will have to create those varied, even short term, relationships and friendships, with children born into and living through all kinds of changing parental settings.
The problem with How and what do non-realists worship? is not the non-realist explanation of using Anglican liturgy, but why should anyone, who was not already a churchgoer, begin to suspend disbelief? Why take on Stephen Mitchell's (a Network Steering Committee member) quoted view that using a creed is like reciting an epic poem? It all reminds me of when I rejected liberal theology because it was for the theist to communicate to the secularist and existentialist, and did not work the other way around. This is not theist, but is only for those steeped in the liturgical sub-culture. The more difficult argument about what happens when you evolve worship texts, as in Unitarian experience, and as mainstream non-realists might if they were allowed to, does not feature, as mainstream liturgies stay more or less fixed. People stay very objective about what remains in evolved texts, so it may be better to leave them fixed and symbolic - but such is no use for the newcomer. David Hart sees the need for a feminist Alternative Service Book, but not the same need for non-realist texts!
Losing the real for good is a chance for David Hart to indulge in his criticial passion for Iris Murdoch's writings. The outcome of those writings, in part, sounds like a possible manifesto for the Western Buddhist:
And yet, through a resolved attempt to see as clearly as possible the situation and nature of the relationships one finds oneself in, the effect can be made to purge and purify the 'fat, relentless ego'. What is necessary to make this effort is the human ideal of 'loving kindness'. (p. 107)
The need is for a relationship with another person, a spiritual friend who can 'unself' (pp. 107 & 110) the pupil. David Hart warns that this may take away self-responsibility. Yet, via a criticism of Christianity, he says, with the Western Buddhist, that:
In our time, with the demise of realist theology and any denominational consensus, ethics has replaced mythology as the primary discipline and requirement for our enlightened response... (p. 114).
Quite. In the final chapter, Faith in the future, he quotes Iris Murdoch again where she believes religion is terribly important, she hears that various priests don't believe in the supernatural doctrines, and that, if they work fast enough, Christianity may become more like Buddhism before Christianity is forgotten entirely (p. 135). This chapter sees the potential of church realignment (new denominations emerging?) and finally suggests that unbelief itself should be assisted.
In my last mainstream involvement my non-realism was clear, but the language became almost physically absurd. This is a book for those still able to deal with it. But is it necessary to interiorize Christian doctrines to get a handle on the human condition (p. 24)? I contend that this can be done better elsewhere, via more directly concerned textual inheritances which already do treat spiritual methodology, not metaphysics, as the important focus. If this is done so that non-realists may save a reactionary church (p. 76), then this will only make sense if church Christianity affects outsiders. Whilst the mainstream churches are privileged in the transmitted media and schools, the situation is that as they sectarianise they actually become less not more important beyond their boundaries. So, yes, if possible, have non-realism in the churches, but let's also examine the alternatives.