Contributions to FaithSpace: Religions

Material below is a collection, not often in date order, of my contributions to Faithspace. Each text may begin some way in to the contribution, but then gaps are signified by three dots. The contributions here extract from the conversational style into something more neutral. They do not include contributions from other people unless absolutely necessary and then they are unnamed. Punctuation is altered for clarification. Extra text is in square brackets which sometimes involves a little removal of text in favour of the given alternative.

16 September, 9:43 pm

We used to have this argument about Satanists down at the Unitarians. The argument then was, given that [Unitarianism] is non-credal and approves freedom of belief, what is to stop Satanists turning up and joining in. And the answer is, why would they want to? We [and they] are aiming at expressing higher ethical standards that a Satanist would argue for, the Satanist saying if you get thumped thump him back.

It is the same with non-realism. It is not about having a God who is some kind of final guarantee of the ethical, but about the ethical which is about trying to produce a good God. Realism in the end does nothing, it just creates forms of walls, it is just a prison. The point about being non-realist is not that you can't have non-realist Satanists, because there are plenty of realist Satanists, but that we can look at all the traditions and cultures that have proposed what is ethical. We might not achieve it very well, but it might suggest some strategies.

What Christian theology into the twentieth century showed is that when God is so purely transcendent, and produces a revelation as [God] chooses (and the Pope must have been criticising the likes of Karl Barth, despite Catholicism's generally good opinion of him), this God does tend to disappear. I suspect Muslim scholars have tackled this, but I cannot say (I know that the banning of images is in order to allow God to be wholly other, ah but writing then becomes very graphical and writing has such a pure status needing just one pure language...). This disappearance is one route to the postmodern, but probably because it is the combination of God and philosophy in Christianity that allows a transcendence to become postmodern [and another philosophy]...

The Pope says (why not discuss what the Pope says) Greek reason is essential to the revelation, the Septuagint of the Hebrew scripture is Greek and distinct too; but my view (different from the revelation view) is that it is all cultural, and with some historical work we have the right to be re-cultural [now]. That is another road to postmodernism.

Mark C. Taylor puts it that God died into writing, which is rather pertinent to this point. The logos then is today's logos, narrative and creative. Non-realism does not mean God does not exist, it is just present in the writing. Existence is no longer interesting, but effect is. Everything is created, negotiated, passed along, debated, questioned. God is in the conceptual, created, universe of viewing the stars, sun and moon, stories of these, and what we are doing.
August 1 2006, 11:30 pm

My interest is in this life and what people do in their behaviour towards one another, not whether they sign on the dotted line in the hope that this existence can go on in some glorified state. If adopting Christian faith helps their behaviour to one another, then all to the good, but of course many have heard about the Christian faith and carry on with their own beliefs and philosophies that are as equally fruitful.

I'm not really interested in the kind of belief that has a God requiring people to sign up to the tribe. Aiming to be Christlike is not the same as joining the tribe. Any reward (and any reward should be the last thing on one's mind) should be for being Christlike and not for being signed up to the team.
August 1 2006, 11:35 pm

Our personalities are located within the brain and in our communications. This is why, with Altzheimers, the person eventually - that collection of memories and recognitions that allows us to function - ceases to exist. And we do change through life. I consider the Buddhist view on this superior to the view on resurrection. Resurrection requires a selfsame person, whereas Buddhism has a view of rebirth through life. One thing that old age suggests is that people start dying to what they had long before they actually expire. But when they expire, they do. So we look for the living among the living, and even amongst those in old age, what it is they have and can tell us about.
August 4 2006, 2:21 am

To comment on these points made earlier:

>if someone refuses to enter heaven without their friend, for they cannot bear to face heaven with the knowledge of friends burning in hell.<

This view is quite Buddhist in the sense of the view that that the Boddhissatva does not cease rebirth but re-enters the round of life in order to carry out compassion. So it is a good ethical point against heaven and hell that a person who could enter heaven might not due to concern for those entering hell..

>Buddhism has a view of rebirth through lives.<

Well, it is a partially mistaken understanding. In Buddhism, the self is a bundle of attributes which come about due to our attachments and these result from experiences and encounters. As these change through life, so the self changes in its bundle, and so there is rebirth going on all the time. When the person dies, the attributes continue to be sticky, and attach to a birth, and so there is rebirth.

I was actually a good attender of a Western Buddhist group (as well as going to a Kampada Tibetan style one). Those ordained in that group said, and the literature said, about rebirth within this life. There was a certain agnosticism about rebirth afterwards. However, the agnosticism did not matter. Buddhism as so interpreted is an orthopraxy, in other words its beliefs follow on from doing the practice. The rebirth experienced takes place actively due to meditation, and it does not matter what you believe in terms of a next life because all that is important is doing the practice. Though, no doubt, fear of the next life, and especially fear of being in a worst state, is a motivation for a spiritual practice, [but] to a Buddhist it is bad motivation as it is evidence of doing something for reasons of attachment. If you do the spiritual practice for reason of getting a reward, you cannot succeed, as it is an attachment. So the practice has to be disinterested, for its own sake, and for that the rebirth in this life will be beneficial, and, for those who believe it, into the next.

...Buddhism is diverse. There is no single interpretation. ...I have heard it first hand, as a keen person attending and listening and reading.

One book I have not read, but have seen (and read bits) is Stephen Batchelor's Buddhism Without Beliefs. He is a Western Buddhist but not in the FWBO. But all Buddhism has beliefs of what is (in transience) that follow on from practice. The Tibetan spiritual universe is highly complex and colourful, but, even there, those who make a doctrine out of that complexity are putting the Buddhist cart before the horse. That universe is realised by what we do, not what there is, and the universe is an existence above and beyond the essence of arrival at nirvana.
August 6 2006, 2:04 pm

The God of the gaps; and as each gap is closed, the God retreats further. Not a good method for theology.
August 9 2006, 2:23 pm

Intelligent design, a euphemism for creationism, but even tackled with a little more complexity, is a non-starter is science. There is no God consensus whatsoever, in fact that hypothesis is left on one side for those who want to dabble, but evolution is the only consensus.

There are people like John Polkinghorne who combine a reasonable Christian faith and scientific endeavour, but he does it by analogy and creatively, and not by direct connections. Theology is not science and cannot be. It can reflect on science. Science reflects on theology when it uses phrases like "the mind of God" as almost throwaways, in the sense of finding a reducible core simplicity to the complexity around us, and so these tend to be mathematical modelling with some far distant and microscopic observations.
19 September, 12:04 am

A non-realist answer is that neither God nor humans come first. Remember that non-realist does not mean unreal, but takes away the binary distinction between real and unreal. So the answer would be, when you speak, and God is important, God is already there in the ethical communication. Now we may not be around, but if we are not and not communicating, what is the point of the discussion anyway?

The history of the universe is that it did not start with intelligence, but leads to intelligence, and when intelligence is arrived at in terms of talking, remembering, planning, recording, and building, there is God talk one and the same.
July 17 2006, 3:00 pm

A great deal hinges on the philosophy of language and matters of sociolinguistics too.

I take the view that there are different approaches to knowledge in different subject areas, with rather wide overlapping boundaries. Science operates (ideally) through falsifiability, once its testable models are up and running. Religion does not operate like this, but in a cultural realm, and is more like art. All these methods come back to presentations in words, and these words are subject to the usual limitations in the big conversations.

Theology tackles religion and has long realised the problem of trying to secure truth when there is transient culture and language. God is said not to exist as other things exist (but then what is [it] to exist?) and has a function of securing ultimate truth. The problem is that when God is part of culture and language, it cannot secure ultimate truth. Theologians have recognised this, and a solution has been to criticise religion and emphasise revelation from a God outside culture. The problem is that this God is outside description of any kind, because description is framed culturally. Such a God must disappear, and objectivity (securing of truth) is lost anyway.

I am not interested in the realism of God because for me it does not exist. Either way it is relative or disappears. Some to secure revelation say that the biblical or doctrinal narratives should be treated as if not cultural, that is fixed and acted out. The problem is that any look at history shows that they are cultural. They changed. The Jesus of one part of the early Church is not the same as the Jesus of another part of the early Church, or the Church as it acquired tradition. The cultural shifts that have taken place since make some of the basic understandings of the early Church times almost impenetrable, rather needing the equivalent of the social anthropologist to go out and learn another language, another form of culture, rather like Evans Pritchard said he came to believe in Witchcraft as practised among the Azande. We are in different times. It is all too human, all too cultural.

So the terms about atheism, theism, and the like, even agnosticism, are all rather in the melting pot when subject to examination.

What we have is a very ancient religion and its forms, and (without getting sectarian) ways of translating whilst allowing the narrative to work. The translation is, in the end, ethical, but that is not the whole aspect of the religious exchange, the exchange that takes place within ritual. Paul Tillich made the effort to translate the old texts into existential language, but because it only works in one direction (from the old to the new) it is not adequate, and does not still tackle the problem of securing or lack of securing the ultimate.
July 17 2006, 3:03 pm

Theism is rejected by many of those who believe in God, and a God of revelation.

The point about accuracy of language and the Greeks - my point is it's not like that anymore and the Greeks are not the be all and end all of understanding and knowledge.
July 18 2006, 2:21 am

>You cannot reject theism and also believe in God, because you would be rejecting belief in God by rejecting Theism.<

[There is] the movement of theologians taken as quite orthodox (indeed, anti-liberal methodology) who rejected theism and yet maintained a very strong belief in God.

Humm. You know, in most recentl Anglican times there was the difference between John Robinson and David Jenkins. I'd call Robinson a theist, but I would be careful before calling David Jenkins a theist. He was very much into stressing the Godness of God, and his revelation in Christ, and hardly theist, clearly from the Barth and Bonhoeffer strand without the muddying that Robinson did by bringing in Tillich and others.

Language is under constant negotiation. Words not only can come to mean less than they did but can mean the opposite. If I'd said to you, two hundred years ago, that a concert I'd just heard was awful, you would know I had approved of it and said it was powerful, grand and fantastic. Now I'd use the word to mean it was dreadful.
July 18 2006, 3:33 pm

Well English might class God as a noun, but that does not mean its classification is its meaning. And it just is not. The word God is used in a variety of ways.

But let's look at this a little differently. A house is a noun. But if I build four walls, windows, doors and a roof, I might call it a house, but if I fill it with straw and put animals in it I might call it a stable. A noun depends then on its function, a sort of verby noun. And the biggest verby noun of all must be God. God, as many a theologian might say, is not "a being" but "Being" and that is a very verby noun. John McQuarrie was a theologian big on Being and comes via Heidegger.
...There was (and still is) a strong movement in theology, that was against the liberal method, against theism and affirming God. That is because there is a difference between theism and God.

In referring to the Godness of God there is, of course, a relationship with poetry. That God is perceived as dynamic and impacting, and so there is bound to be a poetic response. God is not an object.

I haven't much by David Jenkins, but this might be useful:

>The worship of the Thrice-Holy God through Jesus and in Spirit is a celebration of, a contemplation of, an awareness of and a waiting for, a presence who is also an absence and a promise.<

Jenkins, D. (1986), 'Re-searching the Question of God', in Moss, T. (1986), In Search of Christianity, London: Firethorn Press, 86

Note - a presence who is also an absence and a promise. This makes God different from any other object, does it not, and makes a "noun" inadequate.

Next page he writes: It is difficult to write about this [reality claim encountered through Jesus] as it is to write about worship and the glory of God. No doubt the basic reason for this is that love and glory are one and the same in the energy and being of the ultimate mystery which will fill us beyond our most sober, and our most extravegent, imaginings. (87)

David Jenkins was very strong on God, but not very strong on theism at all.

Theologians have rejected deism and theism and still proclaimed belief in God. Karl Barth rejected both, and believed in a God who first spoke to humankind and humankind but responds.
July 19 2006, 1:31 am

>So you cannot accurately be a Theist and also say you do not believe in God, and you cannot accurately believe in God and say you are an Atheist. Unless you wander from the originally intended and still commonly defined and understood meanings of the words.<

But I did not write this. I did not write that a theist can say he or she does not believe in God, or that people who believe in God may describe themselves as atheists. What I said was you can reject theism and still believe in God. You can reject deism and still believe in God. Don Cupitt, before he took leave of God, was a believer in a "high and dry" God and he was no theist either.

I am no theist and I am not a deist, nor am I into revelation, but I am a non-realist when it comes to religious language, and God is an important signfier (if I put it that way). But, honest, there are people who reject theism and deism, but for whom God is direct, and impacting and revealed fully in the biblical narrative or in Church tradition. God cuts into history, but is not within history. God makes himself or herself known, but is not to be found except by God making him or herself known, and this is not theism.

Why not? Because theism is the view that God is immanent in the world, but also transcends it. For many believers in God, the immanentist view clashes with cultural change, and cannot be accepted, and theism gives rise to religion, and they reject religion. Instead God cuts through culture, religion, and is not immanentist. God is high and dry, purely transcendent (and even then like a point source) and not theist.
July 21 2006, 3:54 am

Realism poses a problem, when it claims reality or truth, of how do you know something to be true. Plato said it is because every earthly thing has a heavenly equivalent, and heaven guarantees reality. God, thanks to this Greek thought, plays the same role. Ultimate reality is real because the highest is the real God.

The clash with culture is because culture secularised and secondly because no one religious definition of God predominates in the multi-faith expressions of those who say that God exists. There was once a sacred canopy, one religion one Church in one geography, and it used to be really difficult not to believe in God, almost mad. Now it is as though the place of God has gone. When it was easy to conceive of God as immanent, God was of course in history, but when it is not easy, he seemingly isn't.

It was not as if this happened overnight, but it happened with intellectual movements, though church divisions and new religions being closer, through science and technology, and most of all through lifestyle of this worldly solutions to everyday problems. Look at a 1549 prayer, as I did recently, about God making it rain. No one normally would pray for that now, as we ordinarily view weather systems as self regulating and of their own causes and effect.

Theologians have accounted for these changes, with a job of showing how Christianity is still relevant. One approach was deism, which was God could be reasoned but was not supernatural and had no managerial effect on the ways of the world. One attempt to rescue theism recently was process theology, that God works within natural processes that are unfolding towards a final end, of who knows when. It does not convince evolutionists, who point out that evolution is local and specific, so nothing is being worked out other than the lucky mutation and its place in amoral competition.

Now there was a group of theologians who saw various forms of theism as a compromise with shifting culture, and as diluting the power of God. On top of this, the culture that we have questions the very events of the New Testament through many forces of open academic enquiry and criticism.

Now reality was to be found in culture, in that culture is what is most real to us - it is how we explain things. So clearly there was a distance between that old time religion and changing culture. So although they understood the basis of biblical criticism, and although they understood why liberal theology had come about, a group of theologians opposed it. They opposed it because it undermined the sovereignty of God. They saw humankind as trying to achieve knowledge of God through culture and religion, and reasserted the view that God chose them, and that God cut into history. God clearly was not in culture. Taking culture as one human entity, even though it shifted, God was never in it: God only appears to it, which might make representative forms back thanks to people, but those representations are not of God. This God is of revelation and one way only.

Maintaining the God of revelation when culture has shifted comes at a high price - God becomes invisible except when God shows himself. In the days of the sacred canopy, God both revealed himself and was present. Now God either was in culture in a kind of dissipated way, or God was revealing himself and otherwise gone. And so these people who believed this revelation were not theists. They obviously weren't deists (God by reason, no revelation) but they weren't theists either (God is immanent and transcendent). Even transcendence might be questioned, when it looked like a link between objects of the world.

Now realism has been supported outside of the God method through various devices, some being mental (like phenomenology) and some linguistic. The linguistic one has always been the more interesting to Christians of contemporary intellectual movements, because of God and the Word. Speech has been key to religion, from the secrets of the Torah to the purity of one Arabic holy language (that solved a few problems, creating a heaven derived and human sacred language).

One secular guarantor of truth was structuralism. This held that something is really what it is by also not being what it is not. Black is real because it is not white. However, the postmodernists and poststructuralists (I'll put them together) pointed out that we read between the lines, we use language ironically, and a binary opposite contains something of the other side. Language is fluid, and so there is no such basis of realism. In fact you can push language on and on, and it starts to implode (thus the views of someone like Baudrillard and hyperreality). Reality becomes nothing more than the latest transient expression, rather like consumerist fluff.

(You don't believe me, say with black? Well we watch grey TV screens, but it shows pictures that contain black? How so? Because they are created by brightness. Every artist knows, if you want to paint strong sunlight, make the painting really dark. Somewhere. Black, it turns out, depends on white. And that white newspaper in the evening is darker than the black letters on it during daylight. But I illustrate.)

In this situation hyperreality is also very free. In that transience even God may appear, though will just as momentarily disappear. In fact everything that appears is as good as disappeared. This is the basis of non-realism. Concepts have a transient life, and are instantly undermined.

The fallacy of looking up definitions in a dictionary to see what is the real meaning, is that one word is only defined in its transient use by a whole set of other words also in transient use. It is a never ending but breaking and relinking chain that goes on and on, round and round in circles. A dictionary is just a lot of signifiers and no signified...

It is not that there is no stuff that is stuff out there, but it is what it means through words and concepts. The problem with God, of course, is that God was never stuff of any stuff. It is this utter conceptual flux that exists and to which God is the most fluxxy (to coin a word) of them all.

This is the basis of non-realism. When I handle ritual, the one thing that ritual involves is symbolism, and all words are symbols. That symbolism is imprecise, and in flux, but it still has its connections, and it still as religious involves the communicative body coming towards the symbolic ritual and going through it and coming out of it. Now there is God in that, but it is not a realist God in the sense of something revealing itself or something immanent. It is simply in the flux of the symbolism. Mark C Taylor discusses God died into writing, and it is because of what has happened to writing.

Now no doubt some people keep a realist view of stuff whilst they might find a realist view of God harder to sustain, and might come to seem as atheist. But the peculiar thing is that the religion, the spirituality, still counts. It is still meaningful. There may be shifts in symbolism, but some symbolism still has effect. It is here where non-realism makes sense in religion. My point is that it has broader base than this.

For those that maintained a God of revelation, God became invisible for all normal usual life. Thus Harvey Cox's The Secular City was a Christian book about God and about the urban, get on with it, secular life. For those that maintained a God of culture, a number who went from pluralism into the flux saw that God dissolved into that flux. Indeed a cultural God had died for many a secularist - Bishop John Robinson asked how anyone could not be an atheist, when he considered the secular world. Well, he was a realist. But when you go into hyperreality, and the flux, God appears and disappears at one and the same.

Consider the story of two men on the road. There is a third person with them unrecognised. When they get to understand the point of the new situation, the resurrection, and have a eucharist, he appears - they see him (they see the point). As soon as he appears, because they've seen the point of where its at, he disappears again. Now what could be more postmodern than that? Presence and absence, seeing as a flux word. It is not history, but making a theological point, a connection in the early Church from the understanding of the last supper to the understanding of the way ahead.

Therefore, one thing is that postmoderism allows for is the return, from another angle, of the non-historical non-scientific narrative, the strange and the fantastic. Bye bye the yoke of modernism. This is the point of Hans Frei's The Eclipse of the Biblical Narrative and Lindbeck's The Nature of Doctrine - that these narratives of Bible and Church respectively are not realist, not objective, and live in their own space as texts. Freeze the texts if you like, but they are still understood as in their own space. Same as John Milbank's Radical Orthodoxy. They are not objective, not realist.
August 1 2006, 3:25 am

It is broader than simply religious language. The table is a table because it fulfils a purpose, otherwise it is a circle or rectangle of wood. Take it to a stone age man and he'd probably take the legs off and fling it at an animal, or if circular invent the wheel. The stuff of stuff is not the issue, but the cultural construction of meaning. The apparent realism of things turns out to be something more of a mirage than first seen: we make things what they are.

Now there are different language games, but the feature of making things what they are is fairly universal. So this is the case with God. But the case of God is also like art, in that it is not subject to any processing tests. Science however is able to demonstrate regularity in its field, but even then the understanding of facts exists within contexts, paradigms and these shift. Perspective and stance are more important than once realised.

What makes a non-realist believer different from a non-realist non-believer is that for the first the language fulfils a function in the life stance. For the unbeliever the language might have artistic merit, say in listening to Handels Oratorio, but it has no programme in that person's outlook. For the believer, it does.

The point also to be made is that the non-realist believer is aware, very aware, of the transience of the language and the symbol. It has instant presence and instant absence. This is in line with Derrida's unresolved nature of deconstruction. The words do not resolve this way or that, but are suspended almost in the binary ambivalence (what was inherited from the structuralists). One minute I can live the resurrected life, and the next be programmatic about being detached towards a spiritual goal in Buddhist fashion.

[Some] doubt the old model of God so they switch to another method of spirituality, but then later will use God language as if of old. A lot of people do this these days, due to the pluralism and secularity of the time. They would claim to be realists, but often their stances suggest a transition of approach.
August 2 2006, 2:56 am

If you start the religious symbols again, say now, and from a blank sheet, you realise that in order to have any at all you borrow from the "museum" of religious symbols. I saw this within the Unitarian context. There was really nothing new available. All religious language seems to be inherited. Then the question is how does it work? Well religious language works by interlocking its meanings. So incarnation runs with resurrection, for example, and the meanings within them interconnect. So you have this thing called the tradition, and in a non-realist understanding that tradition is like a raft on which you sail. And given the interconnection of these signs, which only point to themselves and have no external guarantee point, no extra-linguistic support, then to pick apart these signs is to make the raft sink.

This is something like the postliberal argument, that there is a package within which the religious drama works. Now I don't think it is a signed and sealed as that, in that individuals can make their own interconnecting signs. It is hard work, but possible.

If you see what Daphne Hampson does, as a feminist who is post-Christian, you see the problem (or at least I think I do) in that she retains a theism, but she has to ascribe to that qualities, many of which are Western and semi-Christian, but the whole of her argument seems to be still around the Christian theological enterprise, even if to criticise it out of existence. So she is somehow still attached to it. Does her approach do a religious job - well yes within the Quakers. But equally she could retain both the Christian scheme as interlocking symbols, and a vigorous criticism of it. It would more match her theology too: her theology can only criticise the thing to leave it and then, well leave it! But it's then like a dog chewing on an old bone. Instead, chew on the bone, the bone that is the active bone still. This is more or less my view: I retain some of the individualism - a reformism of Christianity, use of Buddhism and humanism - but a greater chewing on the bone that is my religious practice. So it is then these symbols. And when these symbols deliver their ambiguity, that's the place to point the ambiguity out.

As for Jesus is risen and God is real, well some non-realists have argued against the label of non-realism, and would want to say God is real in a non-realist way. Of course God does become real when acted upon in a non-realist way, understanding that the God can instantly disappear too given the transience of the sign.

For example, when participaring in the eucharist as I do, the act is a real one in terms of the action and the symbolic process. It does not rely on a real presence, or a continuing crucifixion - and such is not the main Anglican view anyway. It is already symbolic. I'm just saying yes it is symbolic, and it connects with all those other symbols in the tradition, in a kind of verbal orthopraxy.
October 5 2006, 8:47 pm

Spiritual meaning - God - seems to me to present a constant challenge between what may be to the good and what may be to the bad, and it is never clear whether something in its immediacy works out to something other ethically later. The important matter is what we do in our encounters, and how we manage, and try and work for an ethical way through. I am quite happy with the idea that the good and the bad are both within spiritual meaning and we contend with both. Sometimes it is impossible to know and involves the hope that the good will work out in the long run when matters seem dark. But this has to be worked for.

For me a Christian is a person who relates to and uses the resources of the wider Christian tradition in their personal outlook and conduct and inner reflection. Relevant to this then is the ethical immediacy that was involved in Jesus' broad vision of the coming kingdom, that is both an attempt at the good, the ethical and trying to do it now, at the very moment. It also means taking time out to reflect and communing with others in the effort.

When good things happen we are able to have a moment of recognition and appreciation, a little amount of light in an otherwise greyer and darker struggle. Another insight of the Christian tradition is that the little amount of light burns quite brightly in the dark - but so much of handing life is about managing the dark and the difficult, and trying to build something different and better.


Adrian Worsfold

Pluralist - Liberal and Thoughtful