IDEALS AND RELIGION
muses on why he fundamentally disagrees with
some thoroughly agreeable people
AT LAST, after all these years, it has become plain to me. I have had a minor epiphany.
Before I disclose it, I must explain something rather embarrassing, I have to make an admission that to some readers of New Directions will be slightly shameful. I confess to you and to all who read this journal that, for the most part, I actually like the theological liberals of my acquaintance. In that deathless and sinister phrase, even some of my best friends are liberals.
I even like one of the things they most like about themselves: I like the generosity of their ideals and aspirations. Words like "tolerance", "inclusion", "compassion" all spontaneously excite my approval. Some of these words, of course, pander to my weaker nature - the bit of me that seeks to avoid conflict, the bit of me that likes to be liked. I also hate the way that there is all but never an actual exchange of views. Our disagreements, like all too many public controversies, never really involve a direct engagement with each other. Both sides of the argument spend all too much time trashing the caricature of the other that we have made to suit our own cause. Aldous Huxley observed that most public arguments tend to be conducted in differing languages without interpreters. He was right.
But back to my epiphany. It became clear to me what my beef is with the liberals. The real point at issue between me and the liberals is that I suspect that, at heart, they have not a religion but an ideology instead.
What's more, they seem to be curiously blind to the fact that these two things can never be the same thing. Of course, there are those who are not as blind to this fact as might appear to be the case - it's just that they think that a real religion is ideologically indefensible. As it happens, I think that real religion is ideologically indefensible too. It's just that I don't think that fact necessarily invalidates religion.
What made this insight of mine (not original and not unique) come into focus was a question I had to fill in the other day on a form used for assessment in Lay Reader training. It asked: "What is your view of the candidate's ability . . . to relate theology, faith, and prayer to work and life situations?" The question is, of course, slightly ambiguous, but the overwhelming burden of its implication is ideological, not religious. It is asking whether the candidate can make coherent sense of the relationship between life and faith. The word "ability" is perhaps the tell-tale.
The same question, stated in a religious form, sounds rather different. If I had to translate this question into religious language, I would say "What is your view of the measure of the candidate's gifts of discernment and intercession? And to what extent does s/he bear witness to his/her faith in his/her everyday life?" In other words, I can't help feel that all too much of liberal Christianity is an idea and an ideal, conceptual and intellectual in nature. I, on the other hand, believe that Christianity is about some rather crude realities.
Take for example the debate about the new Bishop of Leicester and the prayer addressing God as "mother". I can't help but feel that the rationale for that decision has got something to do with the view that it is ethically correct in present circumstances to revalue the feminine (and "courageously" shock more staid theological opinion). I, on the other hand, would want to ask, "Will God hear a prayer that is deliberately incorrectly addressed? Will He be angry with me for disobeying his teaching? Am I risking idolatry by this departure from His express word?"
To a liberal, of course, this is all far too crude, even childish. It is dangerously pre-Copernican, pre-Darwinian, pre-Newtonian even. (Bishop Spong chose his criticism of the African Churches with more care than we realise.) But then, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is shockingly crude. The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is tasteless enough to demand a sacrifice for sin - another impassable scandal for Bishop Spong.
I am foolish enough to believe in a God that hears prayer, performs miracles, and communicates Himself to human beings. I am foolish enough to believe in a God who has eternally revealed Himself in a human life lived on earth nearly 2,000 years ago - and that every word worth uttering about that revelation since it was made can only ever be a sublime recapitulation, never an improvement or a progress. The liberal preference for ideology is, of course, a preference for what it perceives to be the best vision of "man well dressed"; humanity at its best, humanity affirmed by its most sublime capacities, namely its capacity for happiness and reason, and its yearning for altruism. To the liberal, the aspect explicit in the Christian revelation (unless it has major reconstructive surgery) has a rather gloomy and pessimistic view of human nature separate to supernature. It appears to be static rather than progressive in outlook. It is composed of concrete realities and duties rather than intellectually intoxicating abstractions. No wonder the world loves "Star Trek" and its many spin-offs with its explicitly optimistic outlook and implicit view that Christianity will be utterly superseded by an altogether more rational and humane scepticism.
At last, it has been revealed to me that the difference between me and the liberals is that they seem to think of the idea of God (how they love that phrase of Jung's) is the only acceptable substitute for the now supposedly surpassed revelation of God. They are rightly scandalised by the suggestion that it might be possible that we have been summoned with our intellect in our hands up to a high place and the instruction that our intellect and ideals must be put on an altar and sacrificed.
Peter Green is Vicar of St. Francis, Friar Park in the diocese of Lichfield.