Here in Lichfield, I go to a local parish church called St. Michael's. It has a great vicar who takes the piss out of everyone, and a stained glass window that I love which has Mary Magdalene in it and the jewels in her hair make her look like she's got pixie ears. (I'll try to remember to take a picture to put here soon.) St. Michael's runs a monthly theological discussion group that I've been part of since we moved here called "Theologically Speaking." The speed with which the group normally moves to issues of doubt and unknowing is always exhilarating - totally blowing away any preconceptions I had held about what this little group of Anglicans would be like. St. Michael's has a few characters that revel in referring to themselves as faithful heretics and it has been fantastic to chat to these guys.
Anyway, Theologically Speaking asked me to do a session on my research. It was titled "A/theism and the Future of the Church," and you can download a copy of the handout I did here.
I started by framing my project in terms of my research questions: How is truth conceptualized in the emerging church milieu? and What are the philosophical, theological and ethical implications of such notions of truth? I (incredibly briefly and necessarily unsatisfactorily) introduced the emerging church milieu as a global network of individuals and communities, connected by the Internet, concerned to live Christ-like lives today.
I began by showing how philosophy has begun to level the playing field for religious belief in the public sphere and introduced notions like post-foundationalism and post-secularism. Here are some of the quotations from participants that I used to give them a flavour of how these notions are held by those involved in the emerging church milieu:
"Everyone has a faith commitment... I'm not saying [everyone's] got a religious commitment, but [they've] got certain assumptis which are not based on reason."
"We're all fundamentalists of one sense or another."
"[Faith] is a foundation of sorts, but it's a post-foundational foundationalism, it's a foundation in the sky, because as soon as you try to analyse it, it disappears."
Here, I've written up the notes I was talking from:
While exposing the myth of the secular levels the playing field for religion to reassert itself in the public sphere (for example, Radical Orthodoxy's unapologetical declaring of secular models of structuring society to be heretical parodies of Christian models), we can go further than this: towards a/theism.
The limitations of human knowledge lead many participants towards an affinity with Derridean deconstruction and Capution deconstructive theology. For example,
"we don't know the number of hairs on God's head, God knows the number of hairs on our head... [The nature of human knowledge] actually creates doubt not just about who or what God is, it creates doubt about if God is. But in the same way that we can celebrate we're not sure exactly who God is, I think we can actually celebrate going, 'and sometimes I don't know even if God is'."
"God changed me, but I'm not sure he exists."
Because we can't know whether we are theists or atheists (in the final analysis) or whether God exists or not, many participants believe that we have to learn to live on the slash of uncertainty between these states. This uncertainty leads to conceiving God differently, other than a being or entity, and instead as an event:
"God spoke to me, repeating four simple words, 'I do not exist.' 'I do not exist'? What could this possibly mean? One thing for sure was that this was not a simply atheism, for it was God who was claiming God's non-existence. In that wasteland I was confronted with something different, I was confronted with the erasure of God by none other than God. I was confronted with the idea that, while God may not be something, that did not imply that God was nothing... And so I began to wonder if it was possible to think of God otherwise than being and nothing, to think of God as speaking, as happening, as an event, as life but not as an object." ('I do not exist,' The God Delusion, ikon, Belfast)
But this uncertainty about whether or not God exists (as an entity) does not lead to a lack of meaning, a lack of ethical principles and apolitical paralysis (as so many criticisms of postmodern thought have contested). Instead, "God" names something (we don't know what) that calls to us, promises a different reality "to come," transforms us and inspires us to make that reality happen. Therefore, it is closely linked to political and social action, particularly notions of justice, hospitality, forgiveness and love.
To explain a bit further, Derrida distingshes between the "messianic" (the inexplicable hope of something "to come" built into us all) and "messianisms" (the concrete systems built around a particular Messiah, e.g. Christianity). What is "to come" is a future we cannot prepare for, because no horizon of expectation (e.g. "kingdom of God") will dull the shocking impact of its arrival. Its coming might even destablise our notions of "kingdom of God." For Derrida, the "messianic structure" (the hope of something "to come") is more important than the particular "messianisms." In fact, "messianisms" need to be kept open to the in-coming of the event, the call, in order to prevent them from being closed over to the work of responding to that call (this is where deconstruction "comes in"!).
"Tearing apart what I love is evidence that I love it" ("Unravelling," The God Delusion, ikon, Belfast)
Jack Caputo talks of both "historical association" (within particular determinate traditions) and "messianic disassociation" (acts of Christians and of Christianity itself which keep them/it open to the incoming of the other, and able - hopefully, because we can't know! - to responding to the other). The Christian tradition is auto-deconstructive. There are fissures and cracks that keep it open to its true calling, that stop it from closing over and shutting down to its vocation to respond to the call (of God? of justice? of love? of peace? Again, we don't know; but we can believe).
There is an element of uncertainty built into creation such that the call can go unheeded, the promise unfulfilled. But we can also be transformed by the call, turned around (metanoia), reversed, convrted, changed. As Caputo has written, we have to "make good" on God's "good" in the Creation narrative, which means acting to bring about what we believe is "to come," even though our idea of it (e.g. kingdom of God, love, justice, peace) might be radically revised in the event of its coming, which might never be.
So even though we don't know the end of the story (does God exist? will the kingdom come? are theists or atheists ultimately right?) we have to step out in faith and respond to what has called us (even though we don't know what it is, even though we name it differently, and disagree about what it is and even that it is).
To recap, the origin of the call is ultimately unknown and unknowable. We all name it differently (God, love, justice, the good, peace...). But we are called by it to help bring it about, not to squabble over what to call it, whether it exists, or who is/isn't included in its call. Caputo writes, “It is not what we call God that is at issue, but what God calls. Then again, it is not what God calls that is at issue, but the response.” (John D. Caputo, The Weakness of God, p.97).
In my thesis, however, I'm particularly interested in how we get from this a/theology to something with practical viability for communities. More quotations from participants signals how they are trying to create communal spaces in which divisions between types of belief are being resisted and blurred.
"dividing people between sheep and goats, that's not what we're about. We're not trying to divide people, we're trying to bring people together."
"Can we hold both views? Can we create a space where both views can be held?"
I'm using the notion of A/theistic Orthodoxy to look at how such spaces might be created. Important here is a different notion of orthodoxy:
"Instead of following the Greek-influenced idea of orthodoxy as right belief,... the emerging community is helping us to rediscover the more Hebraic and mystical notion of the orthodox Christian as one who believes in the right way - that is, believing in a loving, sacrificial and Christ-like manner... Thus orthodoxy is no longer (mis)understood as the opposite of heresy but rather is understood as a term that signals a way of being in the world rather than a means of believing things about the world" (Pete Rollins, How (Not) To Speak of God, pp.2-3).
Here, "church" or community is a space in which divergent beliefs can be held, e.g. whether or not the virgin birth was a historical event, whether Jesus is the Son of God, whether or not God exists as an entity external to us. Many participants talk about beliefs being held "lightly" so that they remain open to the incoming of an event that may radically revise them. Instead of rigid dogmatism, beliefs are held in a "loving, sacrificial, Christ-like manner."
"I think we need to hold our beliefs lightly."
"I tend to draw the line if somebody wants to hold their religion to the point of brow beating or condemning others because they don't do it their way."
"I don't particularly have a problem with people who sort of feel certain, you know. As long as their certainty doesn't then exclude others."
I ended with some questions for discussion:
- What do you think the implications of a/theism might be for the future?
- Do you think that suspending final conclusions about the origin(s) of this call and the name(s) which we give it will facilitate a collaborative response to it?
- Do you think that the notion of "a/theistic orthodoxy" will enable collaboration between denominations, across religons, and with people of "no religoin" for a better future?
It was a really useful exercise to try and introduce some of these ideas to people unfamiliar with either the emerging church conversation or deconstructive theology, and helped me to solidify my thinking in some of these areas. It was great to see everyone interested and engaging with these ideas, and fantastic to see some people so energized about it. The discussion questions ellicited the view that dogmatism will remain a barrier but that collaboration between "progressive" elements (within denominations, across religions and with "atheists") has been possible and will continue to be. The group found the notion of a/theistic orthodoxy to be an exciting way of articulating these developments towards collaboration regardless of differences.
I was asked to do a follow-up session focusing more on a/theism and Derrida's confession that 'I quite rightly pass for an atheist,' which I'll blog about some time next month.