Guest editorial by Anthony Freeman
from Modern Believing Vol 55:3
Engaging with God is not an optional extra. Like Jacob of old, we must wrestle before we are blessed, and do so with all our mind and all our strength. Guidance and encouragement in this task is offered by Keith Ward in the opening article of this issue of Modern Believing, as he takes us to the heart of the Christian encounter with God as Trinity.
Ward’s approach is flagged up in his opening sentence, where he points out that the Christian doctrine of the Trinity would not exist but for the claim that Jesus is in some unique sense to be identified with the divine. This starting point provides grounds for establishing the limits to what Christian pronouncements on the subject can properly say. Ward stands in the Enlightenment tradition of philosophy, which draws a distinction between things as they appear to us, and things as they are in themselves. If our human senses can be confused over simple matters such as the innate size and colour of billiard balls or the moon in the night sky, how much more should we hesitate to claim knowledge of the full nature of God? The appearance of God revealed in Jesus as Father, Son and Spirit is not false—it is not an illusion—but neither is it the whole truth of Godself. Consequently, Christians can properly claim that God as revealed in Jesus is Trinitarian, but they cannot properly claim there is no other way of knowing God. For Ward, a liberal account of the Trinity that acknowledges these limits has positive implications for relations with other faiths.
Keith Ward limits what Christians can know of the Trinity to what has been revealed in God’s encounter with the world in creation and redemption, the ‘divine economy’ as it is called. For Hugh Dawes, in the second contribution to this issue, even these attenuated claims go too far. On his understanding, ‘that which we name as God’ does not refer to anything external, but is a pointer to essential elements contained within the richness of human experience. Any objective or ‘real’ understanding of God harbours a potential for idolatry that can only be countered by poetic and non-real ways of speaking.
For many who adopt the labels ‘liberal’ or ‘modern’ to describe their theological position, including readers of this journal, Dawes’ ‘radical’ or ‘postmodern’ Christianity crosses an unacceptable line in the direction of atheistic humanism. Cue the third essay below, in which Hugh Rock argues that Dawes’ mentor and former colleague Don Cupitt should still be counted in the liberal camp. Cupitt’s 1980 book Taking Leave of God, which launched his campaign for theological ‘non-realism’, is generally assumed to have removed its author from the umbrella of theological liberalism. Rock questions this assumption and proposes that Cupitt’s professed ‘taking leave of God’ is less radical than it appears. Only the Protestant punishing God is taken leave of, while the mystical God of panentheism (which Rock claims—controversially—underpins mainstream liberal theology today) is retained by Cupitt. As for God who is made known in human relationships, so important to liberals like John Robinson, this God the strongly individualistic Cupitt has, in Rock’s estimation, never even been acquainted with, let alone taken leave of. Rock’s is a bold thesis that might provoke others to revisit the question of the relationship between ‘liberal’ and ‘radical’ theologies.
In the second half of this issue, the focus turns away from core theology to the practical outworking of our beliefs already explored in the previous two numbers of Modern Believing.
Anthony Woollard finds that Linda Woodhead’s research for the Westminster Faith Debates, and her subsequent analysis of the nature of ‘believing’ and ‘belonging’ today, raises important issues for the Church of England’s self-understanding and its current growth and mission strategies. He asks the ‘very basic theological question: Does churchgoing or church membership actually matter, and, if so, how and why?’ By way of an answer, he ponders an ecclesiology in which all who publicly associate with the church, at whatever level, might in future play a representative role more akin to that played in the past by members of the clergy or religious orders.
Woollard’s picture of the church is reminiscent in some ways of the late Martin Thornton’s model of the parish as an organic whole, in which never more than a minority—the biblical ‘remnant’—would ever be expected to become committed worshippers. Martyn Percy is another contributor to weigh in robustly against the idolatry of numerical growth in current Church of England policy, this time pointing out the malign effect it has in the selection of diocesan bishops. Instead of seeking and valuing leaders with prophetic and theological vision, he claims, ‘the church today is primarily a management-led organisation’. In such a system, it is hardly surprising that we lack bishops who dare affirm that the true purpose of the church is not to grow, but to glorify God by being the Body of Christ.
Stephen Parsons brings us back to one of the founding aims of this journal: understanding the mind of conservative Christians in order to be able to engage with them effectively and fruitfully from a modernist standpoint. Parsons draws on the work of cognitive linguist George Lakoff, who is able to explain why liberals so often find themselves on the defensive in situations where common sense dictates that they should be occupying the moral and logical high ground. The argument is illustrated by the debate on gay marriage, but its relevance is much wider.
Linda Woodhead focuses on the same topic as she gives an account of her run-in with officials at Church House, Westminster, over the House of Bishops Pastoral Guidance on Same Sex Marriages. This may seem a curious item to include in an academic journal, and the way it earns its place is instructive on two levels. First, the content of the argument she describes illustrates the necessity for scholarly vigilance and scrutiny of all official church pronouncements, even when they are—on the face of it—pastoral rather than doctrinal or intellectual. And secondly, the tone of the arguments deployed—including the unashamed use of the term ‘liberal’ as a derogatory label—indicates that the need for sound scholarship to underpin progressive movements in the church is as great as ever. The role of Modern Believing and its predecessor publications is thus reaffirmed: to equip liberal Christians with well-argued material that cannot be summarily dismissed in the way that was (unsuccessfully) attempted in this instance.
From time to time a controversial issue puts church leaders in the media headlines. Like buses, two have recently come along at once. Journals of the quality of Modern Believing take time to produce, so any attempt to keep up to date with fast-moving debates brings dangers; but we run this risk because both same-sex marriage and food poverty—the final topic in this issue and covered all too briefly—deserve theological reflection.
Niall Cooper, Director of Church Action on Poverty, and Tim Thornton, Bishop of Truro and Co-Chair of the Parliamentary Inquiry into Foodbanks and Food Poverty, both have leading roles in expressing the churches’ concerns about rising levels of extreme poverty in Britain today. For Christians, providing for the needs of the poor and feeding the hungry is an obligation going right back to the ministry of Jesus in Galilee. While scholars still debate the details it seems likely that Jesus understood this obligation in terms of biblical texts describing the land’s resources as God’s provision designed to meet the needs of all. In brief articles Cooper and Thornton describe the present situation and offer resources for exploring how Christians may properly respond today.