Sea of Faith Meeting
in Scunthorpe
on 24/08/2002

Religion and ethics grounded in social anthropology

Adrian Worsfold - entirely my account in no offical capacity

The topic was relativities and spirituality following on from a paper written by one member which was a presentation at the Sea of Faith Conference in 2002.

Six people had gathered. Four were Anglican priests, at least one currently working and at least two recently retired.

The discussion was free flowing. This account covers the main points but is not necessarily in the right order!

One discussion was the relationship between a faith given in absolutes and ethics worked out situationally. The question raised was whether and if faith is treated absolutely. For some people it is and others not, but even where faith is so understood situations cause people to relativise their ethics, even judgemental people facing their own situations relativise.
In any case the Church of absolutes only relates to a few people thse days. Most people approach it on their terms. Yet they seem to find it valuable. That value, however, is based on the tribe (and against the other tribe) and ceremonies of status and passing through. So, perhaps in a Hindu fashion, people treat the Church as an empty space with funny ceremonies but necessary ones. The Church is another place than that of the tribe's, not quite detached but other, to be visited for [some] ceremonies of marking through. Marriage is a principle one. The lie that people think marriage is for life is proven in those who marry for the fourth or fifth time, who know perfectly well it is not necessarily for life, but nevertheless must achieve the status of marriage to bring the other person into themselves.
We also discussed how the law, which may give the impression of neutrality and perfection, but isn't, is a referee. People seeing its cost probably choose to negotiate, but when they do not they go to this referee. The law here has to be absolute - it was quite right that the couple who cut down a hedge went to prison. The court had decided that it must be left alone while its ownership was decided, but then one of the disputant parties went and cut it down. They had gone against the court and thus it applied its sanction. Also the police are semi-detached from the ordinary tribe. The police have their own ethic and statuses, but there is a wall around them and that of the ordinary tribe. In a sense they are like the Church.
I told of carrying out a marriage service on Pagan principles in New Holland on the green of Manchester Square. I said how it was written and made up. Even the Chakhras were wrong, according to their tradition, but it was written by me as a stage of passing through, ending with tying fingers together with a cord and they going into their house, and shutting the door behind them, as if to have sex. Despite the made up nature (or because of it), and with the close and distant crowd around, someone came forward and said it was the most meaningful wedding service she had been in, far more than the Church. Not that it had much impact - the couple will divorce. But they had passed through, and this was seen as their real wedding as oppossed to what had taken place at the register office.
One said how at a recent church wedding no one really knew what was actually going on, or the meaning involved, but nevertheless it was important to go through with it. The priest tries to share some of the meanings to the marrying couple.
In my case I had to marry to satisfy the Home Office requirements for a foreign national's and my relationship to continue. Yet it was in an approved church (Unitarian) where the registrar was therefore prepared to come along and be satisfied that the legal statements had been made. Thus it [the relationship] was accepted in society. Yet again I wrote the service, agreed by the minister, with no mention of God in it except perhaps within the odd hymn, but like the Shaman I see through the passing through ceremony for what it is. There are the religious travellers in India who impress villagers, but no one knows more about the fraud committed in the impressive magical religious act than these magic men themselves.
A Sea of Faith discussion does not of itself talk in terms of the Christian theology as if within it, though it may be practiced. We did though speak about those who use postmodernism, that there is no objective out there, as an excuse to maintain their own belief system. This is either postliberalism (of Georg Linbeck) or the even stronger premodernism (of John Milbank) inside the postmodern bubble. The former acts out a drama of its own continuing identity; the latter says that the secular culture is no more valid than its own, so they can continue with Christendom. However, we were all of a liberal postmodern view, that we should negotiate with the wider society because it is wider and contains such difference, otherwise we are tribal with walls up between us.
As for spirituality, the Chief Rabbi had written in The Times that too much spirituality today was individualist and he wanted a more collective and communal approach. Those who see it as existing at a more fundamental level than religions (like a friend of mine) were criticised for taking refuge in vagueness (not by me!) and that the vogue for spirituality now is rendering the term meaningless. The question was posed whether there is a spirit (one of the priests has before said he is a theist). We discussed that what we have is being conscious of our own consciousness. There is a likely origin for consciousness in self-preservation. Interesting, however, is the mechanics: whether, for example, if the neural network structure is copied that at some complex point some artificial intelligence computer becomes aware of its own existence, or must computers forever stay the equivalent of bashing tin cans [John Serle]. A possible source for awareness might be the simple instruction based but learning computers which start to organise units of their environment [another simplicity to complexity route is the fractal]. Nevertheless, whatever the source, we realise that the self is conscious of itself and can feel pain, and so we transmit that to the other person we see and develop a kind of Golden Thread ethic: not to do to the other person what would not by had oneself and to do to the other what we would have oneself. It is from here, however, and self-protection, that we develop the tribe and equally to know who the enemies are.
Religions at their best try to overcome the tribal boundaries. Buddhism also transmits this empathy and sympathy for the other self-conscious individual right down the line of creation. Of course self-consciousness varies, and we know about deficient humans, which is a basis for animal rights and avoiding speciesism (that if we rely on high levels of self-awareness then very deficient humans lose their rights). Unfortunately religions also become the identity badge of the tribe, whether the Serbs using Orthodoxy (and Orthodoxy happy to be so used) or Buddhists in Sri Lanka using that identity to oppose the Hindu minority.

As an additional thought it might be said that theology becomes a kind of social anthropology, where people are tribal.

To conclude: ethics are developed from the self-conscious individual (the location of the spirit) to the tribe, and there are strong evolutionary bases for origins and this development. Ethics are relative, however, but religion (Christan) remains absolute, and religion continues to be used at arm's length in a secularised setting for rites of passage that give recognition of status within the tribe.