Editorial by Steven Shakespeare
from Modern Believing Vol 58:3 - July 2017

In the week before writing this editorial, Article 50 was triggered in the UK, initiating the start of its withdrawal from the EU

At the same time, Reker Ahmed, a young Kurdish asylum seeker, was viciously beaten by a gang in Croydon, leaving him in a critical condition. Commenting on the event, the head of a fostering agency which works with many young asylum seekers, said ‘We have made several reports to the police of hate crimes. We think it is rising. It is entirely linked to the environment that has been created by the public discourse about people coming to this country from overseas’ (The Guardian, Monday 3rd April 2017).

No doubt many who voted for Brexit had noble aims, but there is little doubt that the discourse surrounding it has fuelled anti-foreigner mistrust, hatred and violence. More than ever, we hear that the country is ‘full’ and the refugees and other migrants are a swarm, a foreign body that must be expelled or kept out entirely. Allied to this is a warped nostalgia for lost British imperial grandeur. We have even witnessed the absurd spectacle of senior politicians threatening war with Spain over the status of Gibraltar.

Modern Believing is obviously not a topical news journal, and we have to take a longer view. Having said that, it is clear that the ramifications of Brexit, and the global rise of a nationalist, intolerant populism, will have long-lasting effects. A robust articulation of liberal, progressive and liberationist values, and a theology in transformative dialogue with the world, are urgently needed.

If these are to have any purchase, they have to respond to the machinery driving global capitalism: the machines which generate anxiety, insecurity and inequality to fuel ‘growth’; the machines which burn the earth upon which we stand and degrade the air we breathe; the machines which make all of life a competition for scarce resources. Liberals cannot speak from a detached standpoint, pronouncing universal values from above the fray. We need to listen to those on the sharp end of anti-black and anti-migrant violence, home repossessions, benefit cuts and all the panoply of prejudice which spills out from the forces of reaction.

Decrying this is easy; answering it, and finding the social movements to build an alternative, can appear almost impossible. One thing is for sure: the xenophobia we are caught up in today offers no alternative. It is merely an illusory dream of pure national or racial identity which will be co-opted to serve the ravages of global capital.

The articles gathered in this issue do not address these contemporary anxieties, at least not directly. However, they are part of a longer trajectory: of creating the imaginative conditions for a different vision of the human, one which is not based on the premise of competitive rivalry and divine violence (or its secular equivalents).

In a departure from our normal practice, we’re delighted to include a longer article by Robert B. Slocum, which examines the career and theology of Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy in depth. Studdert Kennedy is a neglected Anglican theologian, whose experiences in the First World War shaped his approach. He was poisoned by gas, and showed enormous bravery in the thick of combat. This summer marks the centenary of his being awarded the Military Cross. He was taught by Henry Major, and described in the Modern Churchman as the ‘greatest of popular expounders of Modernism’.

He was a person transformed by war: from his enthusiastic patriotic support for it in 1914, he came to see that ‘there are no fruits of victory, no such thing as victory in modern war. War is a universal disaster, and as far as I am concerned I’m through’. The experience drove him the reconsider the power of God in the face of evil and suffering. In fact, long before the more famous work of Moltmann (who was a great admirer), he proclaimed the need for a God who suffers. Rejecting pious superstitions about prayer or providence, he nevertheless upheld the empowering strength of a faith engaged with the reality and pain of life, because God is encountered in the midst of that pain.

As we approach the centenary of the end of the First World War, in a world where asylum seekers are beaten near to death and children are gassed and bombed in Syrian hospitals by their own government, Studdert Kennedy’s theology sounds a note of realistic hope: not for fantasy solutions, but for a life based on faith, not fear.

There are connections to be drawn with Simon Emdin’s careful consideration of the theology of atonement. Emdin argues that the key starting point is that ‘in Christ’s earthly life and death, God was acknowledging before His creatures His ultimate responsibility together with humans for human sin’. This divine responsibility underlies the sense that God is ‘with us’ in all things. God, having brought the world into being, shares with us culpability for evil.

For Emdin, this takes nothing away from human responsibility. Rather, it enables us to see God as fully committed to us and our world, and alongside us in the struggle with evil. Whether this can help us to resolve the dilemmas of theodicy, I am not so sure; but I think Studdert Kennedy would have approved the sense of God’s intimate involvement with our creaturely life and its burdens.

Perhaps a more radical reconsideration of the nature of God is offered in our final article, by Hugh Rock. He finds that much liberal theology still bases itself on a ‘Platonist God’ – a God beyond the world and human life. However, he argues that this is a kind of nostalgia that fails to do justice to the imperative of liberal freedom, the need to explore ways of understanding God that resonate with our contemporary materialist world-view.

Rock advances what he calls ‘social theism’ in which the concept of God stands for ‘affirmation of life-meaning’. Drawing on the work of Don Cupitt, Anthony Freeman and the Quaker tradition, Rock directs us away from thinking of God as ‘out there’ in an objective, supernatural realm, and invites us to discover ‘the existence of God in the sense of significance for life emanating from the cosmos’.

Our contributions in this issue vary in tone and focus, and no doubt the authors and their readers will find significant areas of disagreement. However, I commend them all to you, because each in its own way seeks to wrestle with that it means to talk about God when we allow our theologies to be forged by experience rather than fantasy and wish-fulfilment.

They give me hope that liberal and radical voices can still speak from a place of dialogue with the pain of the world – and resist attempts to deal with that pain through creating scapegoats and imagining demons.