Why So Conservative?

Thomas J.J. Altizer, known both as a radical theologian and a scholar on Blake and Milton, issued this challenge in the second plenary lecture of the 1997 UK conference.

It was a delight for this theologian to attend his first conference of the Sea of Faith, and to discover there a body of serious inquirers into ultimate issues, as well as a remarkably large group of serious theologians, more than I could have discovered at a comparable meeting in the United States.

Yet it was a shock to discover that few here are apparently interested in the radical traditions of the United Kingdom, and above all in the tradition of radical Christianity, which seemingly affected England more than any other nation, and which gave us such ultimate visionaries as Milton and Blake. I was informed that radical Christianity plays little if any role in contemporary British theology, is apparently unattended throughout the United Kingdom, except in seemingly non-theological circles, and is even absent in British politics today, despite its overwhelming role in the birth of British democracy. This is baffling to an American observer, and one wonders if the English today are even more ahistorical than are we Americans!

Can this be true of the Sea of Faith? Frankly, your community reminds me of American Quakers and Unitarians, who have almost wholly forgotten their radical origins, and who have little if any awareness that they come out of traditions which once claimed to be true as opposed to false Christianity. In the United States today there is a dominant conviction that genuine Christianity is orthodox Christianity, and I sensed such a condition in England, and even in the Sea of Faith.

Now leaving aside my conviction that Christianity is very much alive today, although perhaps most dormant in England, I am persuaded that the Sea of Faith is doomed to play a minor sectarian role if it cannot claim to embody genuine Christianity, and a Christianity ignored if not negated by all established forms of Christianity, or all manifest forms of the Church. The very fact that ecclesiastical Christianity today, in virtually all of its forms, ignores if it does not dissolve radical Christianity, is a decisive sign of our situation. Just as we have learned again and again, and all too deeply, that Jesus is our most radical prophet, we have also learned that radical Christianity has throughout its history been the most revolutionary form of Christianity, and most clearly so in England itself.

Why is English Christianity today so indifferent to the English Revolution, by which I certainly do not mean the "Glorious Revolution", but rather that vastly deeper revolution which was the very birth of modern political, social, and religious revolution? At that time political, social, and religious revolution were inseparable, and even if these were seemingly quickly reversed, they inaugurated what we now know to be a revolutionary modernity, and a revolutionary modernity which was originally a Christian modernity. Just as the Catholic Church in France was thrust into a profoundly reactionary role by the French Revolution, was the Church of England hurled into a comparable role by the English Revolution? And is this why modern ecclesiastical Christianity is so deeply a sectarian and peripheral Christianity?

It is vitally important that we discover that Christianity is not confined to its manifest ecclesiastical expressions, and nowhere is this truth more apparent than in English radical Christianity, which throughout its expressions has been both anti-ecclesiastical and anti-establishment, but which nevertheless and precisely thereby can be understood to be a rebirth and renewal of an ancient prophetic tradition, and one fully if not finally present in the original Jesus. This is the Jesus who is at the centre of English radical Christianity, and even if this Jesus is the very reversal of the Christ of orthodox Christianity, it is orthodox Christianity that here is known as an absolute reversal of Jesus, and thereby an absolute reversal of energy and life.

As George Williams taught us in his magisterial The Radical Reformation, it was only in England that all of the ethical and theological motifs of the Radical Reformation entered into a genuine synthesis, and this is certainly not unrelated to the simple fact that it was in England that modern revolution was inaugurated, and originally inaugurated as a comprehensive revolution. If the seventeenth century is the most revolutionary of our centuries, and that one time in which revolution is all comprehensive, this was the very time which was England's most glorious period, and also that time in which the British people were probably the most religious people in the world.

It is often said that the English are now the most irreligious of all peoples, and this American wonders if that is because the English above all others have most abandoned their revolutionary traditions. Would it not be all too appropriate for the Sea of Faith to embrace the calling of giving a contemporary witness to English revolutionary traditions?

What is most distinctive about these traditions is that originally if not continually they have been so deeply religious, as is most manifestly true of English poetry, but also of English politics when it was most revolutionary, and if even today we cannot yet understand the deep integration of radical English poetry and radical English ethics and politics, this is surely a vocation which the Sea of Faith might well embrace. Today ethics and politics are seemingly dominated by a new orthodoxy, and an orthodoxy not unrelated to a traditional religious orthodoxy, which is perhaps why that orthodoxy is so powerful today.

Nowhere in our churches is such orthodoxy now being truly challenged, and that makes this challenge all the more important, and perhaps never so important in the world as a whole than it is today, for our new orthodoxy rivals that of the early middle ages in its comprehensive and seemingly unchallenged power.

America is the fullest and most powerful site of this new orthodoxy, but America was once a colony of Great Britain, and if it was the apparent failure of the English Revolution which was a decisive source of American colonization, perhaps a renewal of that revolution can play a vital role in reversing our orthodoxy, or in reversing the deepest grounds of that orthodoxy.

The simple truth is that few today have any understanding of our revolutionary traditions, but surely this disguises what must be a deep hunger today for revolutionary transformation, and even if we are promised this in a new virtual reality, is the most that we can realistically hope for a "virtual" humanity and world? Yes, ours is an apocalyptic time, but genuine apocalypse embodies an absolute Yes as well as an absolute No, and if radical Christianity has always been an apocalyptic Christianity, never has it been so essential and necessary as it is today.

May this American hope that the Sea of Faith can be and will be a renewal of our most radical traditions?

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