Growing churches and flying buttresses

It would seem that the church in England has stopped declining, from this article. Others question whether this is a pause before Church of England attendance (at the least) falls off a cliff – there are a lot of regular attenders in most congregations who are over 70, often over 80, and they will not be there in 20 years, whereas most Anglican congregations have far fewer people under 30.

However, the growth talked about in the article is generally in the sub-30 year old group, and is most commonly the result of congregations either planted by Holy Trinity Church Brompton or which fit pretty well into the HTB mould. The primary vehicle of evangelism for them is the Alpha course, about which I’ve written quite a few posts (it isn’t used solely by Anglicans, several other denominations use it as well).

What we are seeing, in other words, is the replacement of the Anglican Church as it has been with a set of clones of HTB, and the main evangelical technology being the Alpha course (although most HTB style churches also do street evangelism and the non-talking type of evangelism which I favour, caring for the poor, sick, homeless and marginalised).

A little under five years ago I was persuaded by a friend to go along to a set of talks and discussions about aspects of faith and various features of the modern world (such as science) being held at St. Michael le Belfrey, York. This was an early foray into trying to connect with people again after several years of being “incurvatus in se” as a result of chronic, serious depression and chronic anxiety. I asked some pointed questions, and the organiser took me on one side after the last of that series of talks and asked if I’d like to attend an Alpha course.

Somewhat taken aback, I said I didn’t know – I had already attended one and a half Alpha courses some years earlier (I was invited to stop going to the second, ostensibly because I might become an “Alpha addict”, but more probably because I displayed no sign of stopping asking awkward questions, which was actually a mistake on their part because I was there as company for someone else who hadn’t done the course and who promptly stopped going…) and I said I would perhaps be a disruptive influence. The organiser said that was fine, Alpha welcomed discussion and my presence would allay his fears that no-one would ask any of the difficult questions. So I accepted – and then found that I was listed as a “helper”.

A week before the Alpha “Spirit weekend”, my depression lifted overnight – was this Godly intervention? My friends from the course certainly thought so. Was it because I’d been a member of a recovery community for six years? My friends there certainly thought so. Was it because my antidepressants had just changed? Possible, I suppose, but the effects shouldn’t have been seen for at least a week or two, and the effect was instant, at least within 8 hours. This enabled me to do what I’d been thinking about for some weeks, and actually attend a service at the church – and I carried on doing that until earlier this year, when a combination of circumstances made me wish for something closer to home.

St. Mikes fitted a lot of my wishes for a church. It was welcoming of everyone (even people like me with seriously nonstandard theologies), it did quite a bit of social gospel work and it had a cell group structure into which I slotted myself. I do massively better in groups of 5 to 10 than I do in larger gatherings, and I really like studying scripture and sharing interpretations of it and reactions to it.

Over the next three years I helped with another 7 Alpha courses, assuming that by “helped” you include not only the grunt work but casting some doubt in discussion on most of the apologetics used. However, the people running the Alphas changed, and with them went a positive wish to engage alternative perspectives. The previous Alpha coordinators went off to seminary (which may be a good sign for the future of the clergy!) and my home group disintegrated, with several members going off to other churches. It seemed that the season when it was right for me to be there had passed…

What I learn from the article I link to is that increasingly, Anglican churches are going to fit the mould of St. Mikes and its like. This is something about which I am a little ambivalent.

The plus side is that they are very welcoming to the “seeker” and the new member, at least initially, and in at least some cases are prepared to accept people with divergent theologies as long term members of their communities. They stand some chance, through Alpha, of markedly increasing the number of self-identifying Christians, and could at least conceivably provide congregations with the size and diversity to cope with a variety of styles of worship and, just possibly, even a variety of styles of theology – it would not need much tweaking of their structures to achieve the last of these, but might need a lot of tweaking of their attitude to theology. They also have enough young people to make social gospel endeavours practical (which by and large they are not for ageing congregations in expensive-to-maintain structures), and they definitely have the will to do that.

However, they have not at least so far, so far as I can see, implemented the changes which would be needed to accommodate variant theologies, and they are producing significant numbers of people who think that “The Gospel” is basically just Penal Substitutionary Atonement. I can recall the confusion caused in one young and enthusiastic  church worker when I said I didn’t much like PSA, and he said “but that’s the Gospel…”, so I outlined another six or seven atonement theories to him and pointed out that none of them was actually part of any of the Anglican statements of faith.

The sponsorship by churches in the HTB mould of new seminaries such as St. Melitus (mentioned in the article) and St. Barnabas (my more local version) seems to me likely to produce generations of “ones size fits all” theologies in clergy, and it has definitely seemed to me that St. Mikes was moving in that direction.

And I have difficulty feeling at ease in such a congregation, as do a lot of people who would now describe themselves as “post evangelical”, “liberal” or “radical”. Unless they are open to the idea that people may have very differing theologies from the standard evangelical rubric, they will continue to make uneasy, alienate or exclude all of these strands of Christian thought, and by and large, however apparently welcoming of variant viewpoints they may be in Alpha discussions, at root they are not open to this; the way is extremely narrow which leads to salvation for them (Matt. 7:14) rather than the father’s house having many mansions (John 14:2) or Jesus having other flocks (John 10:16).

Looking to the future, then, what is going to become of those whose thoughts either start to move beyond the evangelical model or which cannot bring themselves anywhere close to it in the first place? Are there going to be no churches, or even no communities, where they can find a home, at least not within Anglicanism – and the same may well apply to Christianity more generally?

I suppose that to some extent, this post is a lament. For many years I used to say that in respect of the church, I was like a flying buttress – I supported it, but from outside. For a while with St. Mikes, I felt more inside than outside – and now I feel outside again.

Better apologetics (more book reviews included)

A chance following of a link from a friend’s facebook feed led to me finding the Jericho Brisance blog, on which is a section labelled “Journey”. The writer, Matt Barsotti, is there chronicling his steady realisation that the scriptural foundations of his conservative Christian belief were untenable, together with the resulting loss of faith, and he does so very well, and very movingly.

I, of course, have moved in exactly the opposite direction, though I’ve ended up with complete agreement with Matt’s sources (just not with his disillusionment). By the age of about 9, I had decided that the entirety of scripture was exactly as believable as stories of Santa Claus or W.E. Johns’ “Biggles” books. In other words, it was complete fiction, possibly enlivened by some reference to actual history (as were some of the early Biggles books). However, at around 15 (it might have been 14, I’m not now sure which side of my birthday it occurred) I had a peak spiritual experience, species mystical, and embarked on a quest to find a way of repeating it and a language in which it could be talked about (and scientific-rationalist-materialist-reductionist just didn’t do the job for the second purpose).

(Incidentally, apologies to those who have read about this bit of my story in other posts; blogposts tend to be read individually, and it needs rehearsing for that reason).

As I shortly afterwards attended a lecture on Mysticism and bought Happold’s book on the subject, much of the search for a language centered round those religions whose mystics formed part of Happold’s anthology, while the search for repetition involved various occult groups as well, plus some “native religions” and their shamanistic practices. I was adequately convinced, before long, that most (if not necessarily all) major religions provided a functional basis in which mystics could find a language of expression, and that all their scriptures without exception needed to be viewed as something other than history. Some, I found, were very keen that their mythos be regarded as fact, others (such as Hinduism) regarded their myths much more lightly, and some (generally the modern pagan revivals) were arriving at the idea that their god-images were constructs.

I spent significant time exploring most of those which were accessible to me (much aided by a period at university where faith traditions which were unrepresented in my somewhat backwoods home town were available) at least far enough to get a decent picture of “how they ticked” from a believer’s perspective, and, of course, how their spiritual practices worked – and I tried the latter. Unsurprisingly, considering my working hypothesis, I found praxes from a wide variety of sources which seemed (in a purely anecdotal sense) to improve the chances of peak spiritual experience.

Now, among Happold’s anthologised writings were a couple from St. John and St. Paul, and a couple from the Oxyrhyncus papyrii (which since Happold wrote the book have proved to be fragments of the Gospel of Thomas). The Oxyrhyncus fragments convinced me that Jesus was a mystic (or at least that the Jesus portrayed in Thomas was a mystic; if in fact he were not, there was a major mystic in the framework whose writings were attributed to Jesus). I had rather more difficulty with the apostles – they were very heavily Christ-focused, and my working hypothesis as to Jesus was that he was a human mystic with a particularly close connection with the divine, whereas both John  and Paul saw a sort of divinised figure only loosely connected with the human Jesus as being that entity with which they had connection. It took me quite a while (and a study of outright Christ-mystics such as Teresa de Avila, John of the Cross, Augustine, Thomas a Kempis) to see them as experiencing what they called Christ as what I had come to call God.

In the meantime, my favoured Christian mystics were pseudo-Dionysus, Meister Eckhart and the writer of the Theologia Germanica, who wrote of God rather than of Christ. After considerable time, however, I arrived at the concession that while I did not think that the Jesus who taught in Palestine in the first century was equivalent to that which the Christ-mystics had experienced, post mortem the way in which Jesus had survived had become so much identified with God that I could treat them as merely using an alternative term for the root of what was effectively the same experience, and at that point St. John  and St. Paul began to open up for me to some extent (an opening up which is continuing – I still have some challenges with both).

Now, reading Matt Barsotti’s account of his slow and painful exit from Christianity, I note that he does seem on occasion to have had experiences which might potentially have given him a basis to develop a strong praxis leading to deeper experience. The trouble is that he was fixed with a whole rationale for faith based on an understanding of what the scriptures are which conflicts with science, archaeology, extra-Biblical texts and historical-critical scholarship, and he found that unsustainable – as he puts it “error in line one”. I have never been in that position, having never had any of this baggage.

Sadly, on at least two occasions (many years ago now) I know that my position has served to propel someone else into a path like Matt’s, ending in a lack of any faith whatsoever – I’ll call them Sue and Steve, though those weren’t their names. I would really prefer not to be the instigator of that kind of pain and loss, particularly if (as proved to happen with Sue and Steve) the result was a collapse of faith without a replacement understanding. My problem is that I do not know of any reliable way in which a peak unitive mystical experience can be forced (merely a set of practices which seem to encourage that assuming that you have already formed the pathways to get there through a prior experience). I can’t, therefore, say “do this and you will have an experience like mine, which will be self-validating”, only “I have found that doing these things tends to improve the frequency of such experiences if you’ve had one to start with” and without that it’s difficult for me to propose with confidence an alternative way to belief.

I ask myself if there is a way to move in the same direction as Matt, but to do so with a safety net of an alternative understanding which is at least reasonably proof against modernity. In my last post, I reviewed a really rather good attempt to provide such an understanding. I suspect that that would not have done for Matt, nor for Sue nor Steve. It is not aimed at a specifically Christian belief, after all, merely at one which sees validity in a sort of theistic belief of huge generality – as one might expect from a twelve-step desire to justify “a God of your understanding”.

Also among my recent reading has been “The Evidence for God” by Prof. Keith Ward. Prof. Ward is an Anglican clergyman and a philosopher and theologian of some note, having enough earned doctorates to satisfy any two or three lesser academics. I wonder, would that have helped? In fact, I don’t think so. Prof. Ward puts forward a very convincing “on balance” argument for the rationality of belief in a personal God, using his philosophical skills to do so (and in an eminently readable fashion), but it stops short of justification of a specifically Christian faith. I move on to “The Predicament of Belief” by Philip Clayton and Steven Knapp, which I have just finished reading.

This is an excellently reasoned and equally accessible book; it passes through some of the philosophical background with rather more speed than does Prof. Ward’s, accepts the major challenges to Christian belief (which it identifies as science, the problem of evil, religious plurality, the state of the historical record (i.e. the principal area which Matt found insuperable) and finally the claim of resurrection. It’s also aimed at preserving what it calls a “minimally personalistic theism” which will allow of acceptance of the most foundational Christian positions without compromising any adherence to science or historical method, particularly when bolstered by personal experience (which any rationalist needs to accept may well be evidence for them, but is not evidence for a disinterested outsider), and to my mind does it very well indeed. It even goes so far as to put up a philosophically sustainable argument for retaining a scientific-rationalist mindset and yet preserve a form of belief in a physical resurrection, should that be thought necessary or desirable. I doubt it would suffice as a tool for evangelism, but that’s not its aim; that is to permit someone with an existing commitment to Christianity to remain within at least the “liberal Christian” fold.

I have to ask, however, whether even this would have been enough to help Matt preserve even a minimal Christian identity (or Bart Ehrman, who is perhaps the best known individual to have trodden this path, and whose books form part of Matt’s path). The problem there is that having once accepted the inadequate and, to my mind, often downright false set of arguments for conventional evangelical Christianity (and I have in mind, for instance, Josh McDowell, Lee Strobel and Nicky Gumbel as major proponents of these), to have them demolished involves a major loss of trust. I’m not sure how you would go about repairing that.

Any reader who has not so far vowed never to read my blog again (unless by chance they’re new to my thinking) is probably not going to be advancing the kind of apologetics I’ve been criticising here, but just in case some doughty soul has managed it, this is a plea to review your apologetics and try to advance the possibility, at least, that the standard evangelical model might, just possibly, not be entirely sustainable for all Christians. Just a possibility that it could be wrong (and that there are nevertheless possibly sustainable ways of maintaining a Christian faith) might be sufficient, sometime in the future, to prevent another departure to atheism or (at best) to the ranks of the “nones”.

Speaking for myself, I tend these days to be careful to avoid raising the objections to McDowell apologetics if there are signs that someone is getting too stressed by the suggestion. I don’t, after all, believe in salvation by correct intellectual conception. In addition, if someone has had any kind of spiritual experience, I strongly suggest that they hold on to that, and remember that you don’t have to understand someone in order to love them.

Postliberal exclusivism? Or just an observation?

On Wednesday evening last week, part of a very stimulating and wide ranging discussion was about Radical Orthodoxy and Post-liberalism. A little while ago I listened to Homebrewed Christianity’s TNT podcast centering on Radical Orthodoxy and Post-liberalism. Well, actually, I listened to it several times, as I liked and hated the ideas presented in more or less equal amount, and it prompted me to a fair amount of thinking.

I’ll deal with some more points in a future post, but for the time being want to concentrate on one: there is in Postliberalism a suggestion that unless you live within the system (and accept it’s language and concept structures as developed over two millennia) you are not able to have certain classes of religious experience.

That is the feature which we fixed on as the problem “du jour”. At first sight, we did not think that the varieties of religions experience (and yes, we had read William James) were or could be exclusive to any particular religious tradition. Certainly, having myself started from the point of view of looking for a language of expression for my own mystical experience wherever I could find it, I had found viable languages in Islam (Sufism), Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism and a variety of other traditions, and at one point in my life could have comfortably explained myself in at least five different traditions. I have tended to look at this from an evolutionary point of view: unless a religion allows expression of the full range of religious experience to which mankind is prone, it is highly unlikely to become a major world religion. It will be out-competed by some other religion which does offer this. Certainly I have found that Christianity in its most general expression is not lacking in any area, though I grant that it is difficult to find pure shamanistic expressions.

Since the discussion, however, I have continued thinking. First, my thoughts went to an account of the conversion experience of another of the Alpha helpers, who was persuaded to try to analyse it without using Christian-speak; it was very similar indeed to my own. However, the fact that at the time of the experience this individual already believed in the basics of evangelical Christianity meant that all the expression of that experience was immediately processed in Christian categories and with some associated Christian symbolism.

This would not be at all surprising; studies of eyewitness testimony have widely revealed that probably before someone’s conscious mind becomes aware of some experience, the brain is trying to fit it to previous experience or thought patterns, and therefore eyewitnesses remember things which they did not actually witness, because that completes the “sense of the story” they are telling themselves as it happens.

It seemed to me, doing a mental comparison, that the fact that his experience fitted in to an expected pattern meant that he had considerable difficulty (to say the least) in expressing it in language shorn of specific religious terminology. He did not, for instance, experience this as panentheistic, whereas I did (at least I did after I had discovered the term “panentheism” some while later); I could not however find any substantive difference in the base experience to justify this. In this sense, therefore, I was possibly able to have a different experience from his due to lacking the language of expression, and it may be that in one sense it was wider.

On the other hand, I have reason to believe also that the bare bones of my own experience were identical to those of people who express themselves as “Christ mystics”, such as Saints John, Paul and Teresa de Avila and Thomas Traherne. Their expression of what they have experienced casts Christ in the same relationship to them as my consciousness of my own experience casts God in relationship to me. I am not able to have quite the same experience as them in relation to Christ (and I suspect this is also true of my experience in relation to that of the Alpha colleague I mentioned). It was, in fact, some considerable time before I was able to make that connection. Before that, I tended to dismiss the writings of such Christ-mystics as being fundamentally different from my own and therefore irrelevant to my experience. I now think this flows purely from the difference in our concept-structures at the time of the experience. Incidentally, other Christian mystics such as Meister Eckhart, the Jesus of the Gospel of Thomas and of certain passages in the synoptics, Dionysus “the Areopagite” and the authors of the Theologia Germanica and the Cloud of Unknowing seem to have been what I now label “God-mystics” more like myself. How it is that they have escaped Christ-mysticism is something which interests me, but to which I have no answer.

I also think it probable that a part of the reason why access to mystical experience became easier for me over the five or six years following my original experience was not merely the fact that I was practising every method I could find which was said to facilitate such experience, but also because I was reading writers who gave me language of description, and therefore my brain became more capable of accommodating the experience.

There is also, of course, the fact that some elements of praxis are entirely individual to a particular religion. Communion in Christianity, tefilin in Judaism and ritual washing in Islam, for instance, have no exact comparisons; these are experiences which you are unlikely to get close to in any other religion.

As a result, I think there is actually something to be said for the idea that unless you operate within the concept-structures of a religious system, you may not be able to have certain kinds of experience – or at the very least, not be able to have them so clearly or easily.


We also mentioned and tended to agree with the story of the blind men and the elephant, comparing their experiences. One (who had the ear) said it was like a cloth, another (who had the tusk) said it was like a spear. The one who had a leg said it was like a tree, the holder of the tail thought it was a rope, and another, holding the trunk, thought it was a snake. On this analogy, each religion might have an unique insight, but all of them would be partial. Another analogy from comparative religion is “many roads up the same mountain”.

Brian McLaren criticises this view in “Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed Cross the Road?: Christian Identity in a Multi-faith World”. He suggests that the evidence shows that they may well be paths up completely different mountains (let’s face it, nirvana is a very different concept from salvation, not quite the same as alignment with the Tao, but again both are very different from a personal relationship with a personal God). Granted, the mountains may be parts of the same mountain range, but still not the same. The idea is also criticised by Bo Sanders on the Homebrewed Christianity blog, also quoting the idea that comparative religion is trying for a kind of uber-religion, and taking an unwarrantedly superior tone to all individual religions.

I’m not sure I agree with McLaren on this; my comments above do indicate that there are very definite flavours, very definite details which are not the same, but as my own experience was able to be satisfactorily described in all of Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism (non-exclusively) I am not so certain that the mountains are in fact different. What I am confident of is that you can’t follow several religions at the same time, just as you can’t talk absolutely simultaneously in several languages. OK, in either case you can chop and change between one and another, but most people can’t do that easily, and I think the effort is rather more between religions, particularly those which have different philosophical systems to underpin them. Also, in the case of either, praxis improves your experience, as I have indicated above. But you need to practice one at a time in order to be good at it, at least you do unless you’re a natural linguist in the case of languages. I do hold out the possibility that there may exist extremely gifted syncretists in religion – after all, Christianity as we know it is syncretic between Judaism and the Hellenic tradition at the least (and I think I can identify a few other influences there) – but there, it took, I think, St. John, St. Paul and a few others to produce a reasonable result. Even then, I think the cracks are there to be seen, and certainly most Protestant traditions don’t think the system was perfected until the fifteenth century or later.

Incidentally, don’t try to tell me that more modern movements are “going back to basics”. They aren’t, they’re indelibly printed with additional centuries of development in the history of thought, and what has been thought and has percolated into the general memory there can never be unthought. They are at best neo-orthodox, with a stress on the “neo-“, and usually an entirely new departure.

However, it may be that McLaren is right. After all, the dominant aim of Christianity, at least traditionally, is salvation, while the dominant aim of Buddhism and Hinduism is nirvana. I find it difficult to argue that those are actually the same mountain peak, even if the objectives of the relevant mystical traditions might be identical, subject to translation.

In my next post I’ll think a bit more about these two positions in theology.


Avoid Alpha?

I was interested to read Doug Hagler’s piece on finding a church at “Two Friars and a Fool”. Particularly interested because the number one characteristic which he suggested progressive Christians should avoid is any church which advertises the Alpha Course.

Now I probably qualify as progressive, possibly as radical – I have elements of both. I normally read “Two Friars…” which is progressive tending to radical in stance, and nod in agreement at what any of the three mainstay writers say. But I also attend a church which not only advertises an Alpha but runs at least three courses a year – last year, they ran six or seven. Not only that, but one of the main reasons I stick with that church (as well as attending a less “evangelical” church which is actually my local parish church, much closer to home) is in order to be a helper with their Alpha courses.

Now, it may well be that this church takes an unusual approach to Alpha. They are, for a start, an evangelically oriented church within a mainline denomination (Church of England). Also it may not carry on doing that, as the current Alpha coordinator has just stepped down. But he actually recruited me to help with Alpha despite my telling him that I disagreed with most of the content and had actually been asked to leave the previous Alpha course I’d attended. He argued that I would make sure that there was lively discussion after the talks – and I really like any opportunity to talk theology and biblical history.

So I’ve now been doing that for just over a year. I find I don’t just keep the discussion lively, but I also provide an example of how one can be a Christian but not toe the evangelical party line – and Alpha does that. So, occasionally, do the speakers; this church doesn’t rely on the video talks which are produced centrally, but gets a different person from within the church for each talk; one result is that no two of the talks I’ve attended on any of the Alpha topics have been exactly the same.

The leadership of the church considers that Alpha is the best single tool for evangelism which they have, and that is probably correct. Doug would probably feel that this is evangelism into the narrow confines of evangelical thinking, and consider it a bad thing – but is it? I think not.

It hasn’t escaped my attention that I’m rather unusual in terms of my formation, having started as an atheist, and having to work hard over many years to find a way of functioning in a Christian community pretty much all of which will be substantially more conservative-minded than I am. I can’t give up methodological naturalism (i.e. I expect there to be a naturalistic, scientifically explainable reason for everything) even if I wanted to, which I don’t particularly, and have had to find ways of Christian expression which do not conflict with this – and I think I have found people who have reasonably compatible viewpoints in the community which tends to wear the label “progressive”.

None of the well known names in this community started out as atheists and inched their way into Christianity following an apparently uncaused peak spiritual experience as I did, however. Some started in mainline churches, but the overwhelming majority started off in one of the churches labelled “evangelical”. In other words, they started with the kind of theology which Alpha puts forward and in their own walks of faith found that the evangelical touchstones were impossible for them to assent to any more. Peter Enns is currently doing a set of testimonies of progressive scholars, the second of which is here; these are I think fairly typical. Having looked at Peter Rollins’ experiments in radical theology, they are universally aimed at people who have existing familiarity with the conventional Christian tradition and wish to move on.

I also know of no programme similar to Alpha which looks to recruit people directly into the more liberal traditions. “Living the Questions”, for instance, assumes basic Christian knowledge and seeks to move from a conventional to a more progressive stance. “Emmaus” does not engage liberal or progressive viewpoints well and generally functions as a formation programme for those who are already Christians, although it can be and sometimes is used as an entry level course, and John Vincent’s “Journey” is specifically a post-conviction radical discipleship course. I also know of no way of successfully presenting a liberal/progressive/radical gospel in easy soundbytes, such that you could use this for direct evangelism, assuming for a moment that the less conservative churches gained a sudden missionary zeal.

Thus it seems to me that the ranks of the liberal, the progressive and the radical are very largely dependent upon more conservative forms of Christianity in order to increase their ranks. In order to have more liberal, progressive and radical Christians, we need more conventional-to-conservative Christians.

In an ideal world, the move from conservative to progressive (if a person’s faith journey went in that direction) could happen within one denomination, and the Anglican tradition seems to me the best candidate for one sufficiently broad to allow this, assuming that it can avoid pulling itself apart over issues which have little or nothing to do with the centrality of the gospel. Even better would be the ability for this to happen within one church. I am earnestly hoping that I have found such a church, given their tolerance for my liberal-progressive-radical viewpoints on their Alpha course!

I also, of course, find myself in the position of accepting the “Great Commission” (“Go forth and make disciples of all nations”), while being unable to share from my own experience a path which is at all likely to resonate with those who hear me; the vast majority of people, it seems, do not have major life-changing spiritual experiences from a position entirely outside religion. Try as I might, I cannot now travel by a different route to the destination I am already at in order to produce experience which would actually be useful to anyone else. I do what I can using St. Francis’ “Preach the gospel; use words if necessary” principle, but other than that, all I can do is assist others in the process of creating disciples.

So, do I have any measure of agreement with Rev. Hagler? Well, I can testify from personal experience that being theologically liberal in a more conservatively minded church without being divisive is not easy (it isn’t trivially easy in a conventional mainline church either), so if there is a “progressive” church available, perhaps progressives looking for a home will feel more comfortable there. I think, however, that they will then find difficulty in fulfilling the Great Commission.

If anyone has a magic solution to making disciples the progressive way, I want to know. But on the whole, I don’t believe in magic solutions…


Emerging minds

I got into a philosophical discussion last night, thanks to Catherine (from this time’s Alpha, which ended yesterday), and was probably horribly overmatched. No, strike the “probably”; I was definitely carrying a sword to a gunfight there.

However, it was hugely interesting and stimulating, and I hope such conversations continue outside Alpha.
One topic which came up was as to whether there was something more than the material, the physical. Now, I am at least 99% scientific-rationalist-materialist, and was saying that we had no effective way of demonstrating that there was. Catherine, it seems, is a fan of Plato. There were bound to be fireworks! Where we didn’t finish was on an illustration of being put in a room with a set of instructions. Into the room came sets of chinese characters (and it is determined, rightly, that I don’t know Chinese); you then follow the instructions and send a different set of chinese characters out to the person outside – and, lo and behold, it looks to the person outside as if you are speaking Chinese.

The question is, are you? You have no comprehension of the individual characters. Can it be said that you “speak chinese”? (my brain throws up a side note – could the Apostles at pentecost be said to be speaking in other languages, on this analysis?).

This is obviously a derivation of a Turing test machine, slotting you into the mechanism.

I was attempting to work via the concept of emergence. It seemed to me that the mechanism was too simple; I used the analogy of simultaneous translators, who frequently have no idea what they’ve just translated as the translation process seems not to occur in the stream of conscious thought (and I can testify that for me, it’s a lot easier to speak in French if I think in French in the first place. Translation is much more difficult for me, and simultaneous translation impossible – I know, I’ve been asked to do it in the past). I suggested that with a few feedback loops (and it does seem to me that consciousness operates a bit like one or several feedback loops) things might be different – though I suspect, having had time to sleep on it, that however many feedback loops were contained in the room, myself as the operator would still be serenely unaware of what was actually happening unless one of them happened to include a Chinese-English dictionary).

But I definitely buy in to the emergence concept, where chemistry is an emergent property of physics, biology is an emergent property of chemistry, psychology is an emergent property of biology (perhaps with neurology slotted in between). And possibly God is an emergent property of psychology. I at least entertain the concept, although I have no idea how you would go about demonstrating that it was correct (I suspect it’s impossible, being a higher order emergent property than our consciousnesses) and it doesn’t work for me as a working theory – panentheism still does that job better than anything else I can come up with.

Our ideas of God are certainly something which emerges from our psychology, and perhaps that is the clue here. I tend to criticise Plato as reifying intangibles, thinking of derivative concepts (such as good, truth and beauty) as being more real than the things which exemplify those qualities, whereas from where I stand they are derived concepts without any external reality, in much the same way as you don’t get the psychology without first having the neurology, the biology, the chemistry and the physics. These things only have reality inasmuch as they are embodied.

Or, as the case may be, incarnated…

Alpha 1 – historicism/mythicism

For my Alpha group, here’s a debate between Zeba Crook (a non-Christian New Testament scholar) and Richard Carrier (possibly the only reasonably weighty scholar who argues complete mythicism). For our purposes, as none of us think the mythicist position is correct, the relevant portion is from about 11 minutes to about 31 minutes, which is Zeba Crook talking (No, it isn’t necessary to watch the whole hour and three quarters).

Zeba give a good overview of the position that the early Christians progressively mythicised an historical figure with a few excellent examples.

Dispensing with the dispensation

In discussion last night I heard again what I’ve heard many times before. I can’t guarantee to use the exact wording (and so much for the ability of eyewitnesses to recount exact wording 40 or 70 years after the event!) but in general terms the statement ran:-

“The Jews had the Law, but the Law didn’t work, so God sent Jesus to deliver the New Covenant.”

This is a depressingly familiar line of thinking typical of post-Luther Pauline scholarship in the West; the proof text for it is the extended discussion in Romans 1-11, but in particular Romans 2:9-18, 5:20, 8:3, 11:7 and 13-25. Happily, scholarship during the last 50 years has taken a new turn, interpreting Paul very differently. I quote from E.P. Sanders “Paul and Palestinian Judaism”:-

“It has been a common view among Christian scholars that there is such an incongruence in Judaism generally and in Rabbinic Judaism in particular. God, it has been said, became very remote in the period after the return from Babylon. He was no longer spoken of familiarly, but only by circumlocutions; and angels were necessary as intermediaries. Yet Judaism possessed no means of access to the remote God save obedience to the Torah, which is manifestly insufficient and inadequate. This situation led to a religion of anxiety on the one hand (could one do enough works to earn favour with the distant God?) and smug self-reliance on the other hand (some could).

This estimate of Jewish religious experience – anxiety coupled with arrogant self-righteousness – rests on three theories about Jewish theology, all wrong. They are the view that a man must do more good deeds than he commits transgressions, that God is viewed as inaccessible, and that the individual felt himself to be lost, having no access to the remote God.” (my emboldening). Sanders is at that point well on the way to showing that there is no justification at all for taking that view of Judaism.

Sanders’ book, published in 1975, was the first major book to express what has become known as “The New Perspective on Paul”. Other major names taking this kind of view are James Dunn, Douglas Campbell and, most recently, N.T. Wright. Douglas Campbell’s “The Deliverance of God: an Apocalyptic Re-reading of Justification in Paul” takes Paul’s relevant statements, mainly in Romans but also in Galatians and elsewhere and where Sanders has exposed a problem (that if we are to read Paul in this way, Paul has got his Judaism very seriously wrong), Campbell sets out to re-read Paul, finding that this viewpoint is not, in fact, justified from Pauline scripture in any event. Sanders (and those following him) comes to the conclusion that individual salvation in Second Temple Judaism was by something called “covenantal nomism”, which, briefly, is the view that all members of Israel (i.e. Jews) are saved by that status, and that adherence to the Law is an appropriate response to that salvation, and potentially at least required in order for someone to retain that status (a viewpoint not in fact dissimilar from that of reformed theology). Campbell finds that justification in Paul is by participatory atonement, in which the believer participates in Christ’s atoning sacrifice by participating in his death and resurrection, in the process “dying to sin”, and in the process finds that Paul’s strictures about the inadequacy of the Law to save are in fact a rhetorical device presenting the views of a competing teacher whose viewpoint Paul then proceeds to ridicule.

I am very pleased to have found these lines of argument, which I find convincing enough (at the least) to cast serious doubt upon the previous reformed orthodoxy, as it serves to restore Paul in my view away from “someone who corrupted the message of Jesus” (which would have been my stance a few years ago) to that of an inspired writer.

Among other things, it avoids the hugely problematic question of how it could be that God would deliver to the Jews a system which didn’t work, and leave them with nothing better for a period of at least 500 years and potentially well over 1500. In the classical Theist concept, that just doesn’t work; a God who would do this would not be both omniscient and omnibenevolent, i.e. he would either be surprised it didn’t work or uncaring of the fate of many members of his chosen people (or, perhaps, both, as 1500 years is a rather long time for something not to work and not be “mended”).

I will grant that this just might work in a “process theology” framework, where God is not omniscient and develops in response to man’s own development, but even then the scale and duration of lack of knowledge seriously stretches my ability to understand how that might be the case.

It had to be, therefore, that this conception was untrue, and until reading Sanders and Campbell fairly recently, I unfairly laid the blame for this misconception on Paul. In fact, it appears, the main culprits were Luther and Calvin.

In point of fact, as I currently read the scriptures, I think the point of view of covenantal nomism is only somewhat justified, as it seems to me that the question of individual sin and salvation is thoroughly and adequately dealt with by Ezekiel 18. Ezekiel appears to date from 592 BC (something over 600 years before Paul). However, this passage is somewhat foreshadowed in earlier material, parts of Isaiah, Proverbs and Psalms, so that would represent the latest date at which this concept came into Judaism. All that there matters is the orientation of the individual (whether toward God and his commandments or away from those) at any particular point in time. Repent and turn to God, says Ezekiel, and you will live; this can readily be amplified to indicate that repentance requires that amends be made and, of course, that where the Law demands certain ritual observances, that these be done.

Earlier than this, is the same charge against God for not having created and made known an adequate mechanism for individual salvation justifiable? On the whole, I think not. I am sticking my neck out considerably here, but I do not think that the earliest parts of the biblical witness speak to individual salvation at all, but to collective salvation, that is to say preservation and increase of the whole people, and I suspect that anxiety about individual rather than collective salvation is the product of a later stage in the unfolding response of the people towards God. When the issue first becomes a problem in human consciousness (perhaps around the time of David), solutions begin to arrive via writers of what is now scripture, culminating (to my mind) in Ezekiel.

I am somewhat embarrassed that it has taken me so long to come to this conclusion, but in my defence say that it is very difficult to overcome the preconceptions instilled by several centuries of focus on the individual following the Enlightenment – just as it was very difficult (and therefore demanded a mammoth and extremely detailed analysis) for Douglas Campbell to overcome the preconceptions instilled by several centuries of reformed theology.

Paul, it now seems to me, was speaking only to the issue of how to integrate non-Jewish followers of Jesus with Jewish ones without establishing a hierarchy in which the non-Jewish followers were “second class citizens”, and doing this to counter another teacher who was preaching the necessity of full conversion to Judaism. He was also doing this from a thoroughly Jewish perspective, as Alan Segal’s “Paul, the Convert” and Daniel Boyarin’s “A Radical Jew” have underlined for me.

It wasn’t, in other words, a “new dispensation” as some think, and the comment last night assumes, more a small step in a widening of the scope of a message which was already well in place.

It depends how you look at it…