Last night I attended the excellent ‘Holy Ground’ event put on by Exeter Cathedral. It was only my third visit but whenever I can’t go I often hear reports of what was on and how it went.
I really like the willingness of the Exeter team to reach beyond the pre-existing boundaries, to host speakers who will challenge and dare I say, yes I dare, upset/offend.
As a worship experience, God is worshipped in wonderful Trinitarian language, and Christ is proclaimed through thoughtful, contemporary liturgy.
Last night after the Eucharist service, we listened to the guest speaker, Tony Windross. I’d never heard of Tony, an Anglican minister somewhere in Cornwall. He presented his case as his book title says, The Thoughtful Guide to Faith’.
I sat there and listened; I tried to really listen, and see if I could hear anything worth dying for; indeed anything worth living for; anything that didn’t tear up my epistemological foundations with sweeping assumptions and generalities.
But it seemed to me that Tony had nothing to proclaim. I totally agree with him that the Church-in-the-pews for too long has lived in the toxic environment of infantalisation and anti-intellectualism. I myself have commended a book arguing the same things in Relating Faith, a book written by one of the cleverest Christians I know!
It seemed to me that if one didn’t mistrust everything of scripture, theological tradition and church history in general, then you would be labelled a black and white thinking fundamentalist! What he was doing it seemed to me, was deconstructing the framework of Christianity (and Christianity has many framworks), but labelling all of it fundamentalist. The upshot being, of course, that if you didn’t agree with Tony, you were the simplistic fundamentalist he critiques. This sounds to me like authoritarianism, a relatavist neo-pragmatism.
This postmodern, neo-pragmatic historical relativism immunizes absolutist authoritarian – and potentially extremist – communities from challenge by historical knowledge, and thereby greatly hinders the victims of (and/or within) such communities from attaining liberation through the awakening concientizacion – the process by which the cause and unease of a situation is solved, and can be like breaking a spell. And I have to say, genuine Christianity, with its ancient texts, is what will initiate this process of awakening. It is biblical Christianity and the right kind of postmodernity (as opposed to the arrogant, self-referencing and ‘know-it-all’ postmodernity), that accepts that a person can be challenged by historical truth that is accessed through texts. Thus, it is the neo-pragmatists who refuses to be challenged by historical truth that is accessed through texts, who in principle are being authoritarian.
The weakness of course, and by his own admission in the Q&A afterwards, that sweeping generalities in a public lecture can be more nuanced in a private conversation. This won’t really do. The sweeping generalities were so far reaching as to make the error of assuming that it is not just the bath water that gets thrown out, but the baby, the bath and heck, let’s knock the whole house down and rebuild it with my own enlightened epistemological foundations!
So here Tony was asked to justify his stance on Communion. He may as well have said “Well, one cannot access philosophical (and, presumably, other kinds of) texts – we need to have a more thoughtful guide to faith.” When it comes to understanding the past through texts, neo-pragmatists thus ignore biblical doctrine, Continental philosophical tradition since Heidegger (and earlier), and recent science. This is not more thoughtful, but less! In this way, Tony’s thesis made me dizzy in its circular assertions that effectively made him immune from challenge (unless the challenger actually desires or doesn’t mind the insulting label of ‘fundamentalist’), and in this way, is authoritarian!
Several times I was in agreement with Tony. He was humerous, and most right-thinking people appreciate that! But you simply can’t assume that everyone who does not share your theological vision is a fundamentalist! It smacks of insincerity, mainly because I know it isn’t true, as there are thousands, millions of clever, thoughtful, academic people of faith, none of whom were named by Tony, who espouse theological visions with epistemological integrity that he never even referred to!
I liked his quotation of Ludwig Wittgenstein, a philosopher who knew his stuff, but Tony sadly, did not quote actual theological giants of the past or indeed, of our age! Where was Thiselton, Bentley Hart, Barth, Moltmann, Goldsworthy, Williams, Hauerwas, Zizoulas, etc, ad infinitum (almost)! Or any of the Patristic Fathers, or pre-Reformation Catholic theologians or even the Reformers themselves?
It was Wittgenstein who attacks ‘Elightenment’ ‘rationalist method’ which seeks immediate interpretive answers that potentially conform to a system of foreclosed a priori categories. For Gadamer, the later Wittgenstein and Thiselton, there is neither an ‘antithesis between tradition and historical research’ nor ‘a philosophical method’, but rather ‘methods, like different therapies’, that pertain to understanding historical difference….
Thiselton writes, “Tradition may affect understanding either positively or negatively… The later Heidegger convincingly shows that … a given language-tradition may serve as a filter, passing on truth which has stood the test of time [cf. ‘effective history’]… Both sides must be taken into account…. [and, against both thinkers, qualify one another].
Anthony C. Thiselton and the Grammar of Hermeneutics – the search for a unified theory, by Robert Knowles
The reason I cite these very few examples followed by this extract from Knowles book is because Tony claimed to be espousing an argument for thinking faith, but he doesn’t seem to actually engage with anyone who is a Thinker! Admittedly, theologian Don Cupitt endorses his 2004 book, but Cupitt himself seems to seek a ‘new form’ of Christianity (whatever that means), of something like Christian Buddhism! I can hardly believe I’m writing this! He and Tony may want us to investigate new ideas of God, but it is clear that this new idea is their idea! Their way or the highway! Nothing to proclaim!
Finally, as an example, in the context of being a radical, liberal thinker, at the right end of the spectrum and everyone else (the fundamentalists) at the other, Tony does rightly, want the Christian faith to be more thoughtful. I agree.
But, as already mentioned, when asked about what happens at the Eucharist, what it means, Tony answered in mystical tones that it is a mystery! Is that the most thoughtful, progressive, content-filled, theological annunciated thing Tony can say? After the denial of the Resurrection of Jesus – without any qualification at all – this reply went some way to confirming my suspicions: This is the tyranical anachy of extreme, liberal fundamentalism that has a lot to destroy but nothing to build; a lot to say, but nothing to proclaim.
Anyone can take pot shots at the crappy bits of Church life and Christianity. All Christians should be doing this in deep love and grace, but to claim the high ground of ‘thoughtfulness’ then pronounce “Mystery!” is tantamount to an amnesia of the most cleverly disguised kind; and a neo-fundamentalism cloaked in progressive language masquerading as intelligent faith.
So whilst I thank Tony for lecturing last night, and as for me someone who isn’t a fundamentalist – not least on his terms, I left the Cathedral feeling like I’d been tarred with a dirty brush: you had no good news, no gospel, nothing to proclaim.
Now that is what I call a mystery!
As part of the team who leads Holy Ground at Exeter Cathedral I would like to thank you for taking the time to write this thoughtful blog. Thank you for your kind words about Holy Ground and for your appreciation of our worship and our courage to take risks. Taking such risks, I hope you would agree is worthwhile despite the inevitable division of opinion it can stimulate. Please be assured that it is never our intention to cause anyone distress or intentionally deconstruct anyones faith or theological framework. Tony was indeed of a particularly extreme perspective and certainly not representative of the Holy Ground team or indeed Exeter Cathedral as a whole, but of our commitment to create space for a wide range of voices to be heard and considered. Thank you for engageing so thoughfully with it and we hope you will continue to share the journey with us at Holy Ground.
Thank you for your note. I assure you I found it exhilarating – so you have no need to worry there.
I liked Tony, not least his bravery and the sheer steely fortitude he must live with; and especially the willingness of the Exeter team to host him.
My language of deconstruction and the like is my attempt provide some pastoral/theological ammunition to those who may have been more acutely impacted by what Tony was espousing.
I think the Holy Ground event is fantastic and is to be highly commended for the beauty offered in worship, and the challenge in topics.
Blessings all round
Thanks for your reply….you may have worked out from my closing prayer I wasn’t exactly on the same page as Tony myself! Others did find it helpful and he has emailed to say he found the experience both challenging and moving himself, so perhaps the risk was worth it ! As ever with our love and prayers Anna .
I did. Your closing prayer was very respectful of Tony too. And I’m grateful I had the chance to listen to him, so keep taking the risks!!