Report of the Tenth Annual Conference

Leicester, UK, 22-24 July 1997 — Report by John Klopacz

The members, friends, and inquirers who gathered for the Tenth Annual Conference of the Sea of Faith Network, Leicester, UK, Tuesday, July 22nd - Thursday, July 24th, had much to celebrate. As an organization and as individuals, we had come a long way from that First Conference at Loughborough University, when, as Penny Mawdsley recalled, we came together, "strangers, seeking sanctuary - so much flotsam and jetsam on a sea of faith." Don Cupitt told the over 250 participants at this year's gathering that "Sea of Faith has certainly attracted some national attention and is regarded, by some at least, as the liveliest and most innovative group on the British religious scene. We have a flourishing New Zealand offshoot, and some hopes for the formation of other overseas branches." As was fitting for a tenth anniversary, Conference attendees encountered a groaning board of workshops, lectures, new publications, and celebratory meals and activities.

As in past years, participants were assigned to "base groups" of twelve members and a facilitator. The base groups met following the opening session to express hopes and goals for Conference, and then later to discuss the speakers' presentations and formulate questions for 23rd July's plenary session. My group included long time attendees and first timers, clergy and lay people, questioning Christians and convinced humanists. All in all, a rather typical Sea of Faith gathering.

The thirty-two workshops were "front loaded" onto Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday morning in three rounds. I attended two workshops. The first, David Hart's and Alison Webster's "Non-realism and Sexual Ethics," was a workshop approaching the question of non-realism and a gay identity. The second, hosted by Aileen La Tourette, was a discussion with principal speaker, Daphne Hampson of her latest book, After Christianity. In addition to Hampson, two other principal speakers, Tom Altizer and Arthur Miller participated in discussions of their recent work. Lloyd Geering presented two well-attended lecture/discussion sessions on the implications of relativity for religion and morals. Workshops based on the Unitarian Universalist curriculum "Building Your Own Theology" continued to be popular. I presented an introductory talk with discussion, "Good News from Sonoma County: The Jesus Seminar and the Sea of Faith."

"Ten years of exploring together" appeared to have engendered in Conference participants a sense of confidence and a desire to explore further reaches of religious thought. Was it in this spirit that the Conference Committee invited Daphne Hampson, Tom Altizer and Arthur Miller to be Wednesday's principal speakers? In no sense could they, a non-Christian theist, an apocalyptic theologian and a scientific realist, be said to have represented any sort of emerging Sea of Faith orthodoxy.

Daphne Hampson, whose After Christianity is available in the States from Trinity Press International ($25.00), spoke on the topic of "Ethics in the 21st Century." She envisions a move beyond the ethic of "subordination and paternalism" which characterized the ethic of early modern Europe. Drawing on recent feminist theory she suggests an emerging ethic that is both "relational and contextual." This ethic will, according to Hampson, involve "certain practices which have not been cultivated in the 'male' world," namely "listening, honesty and compassion." The spiritualities from which this ethic will draw are eco-feminist and Buddhist, as well as the Judaeo-Christian tradition of the past. I sensed that many Conference attendees were in general sympathy with Hampson's ethic and spirituality, but not with her realist theism.

Thomas Altizer, American "death of God" theologian and most recently author of The Contemporary Jesus (State University of New York Press, $19.95), spoke with the fervour and conviction of a Southern preacher as a witness to a "Satanic voice." He introduced the concept of coincidentia oppositorum in all its Christian manifestations: eternity and time, spirit and flesh, Christ and Satan. Altizer then turned to the "overwhelming problem of Christian theology," which he sees as the "identity of the kingdom of God." He saw a pronounced dichotomy between Christian traditions about God and what Jesus preached and enacted. Apocalyptic language, Altizer maintained, implies the "search for meaning in what is seemingly most distant." Altizer located this "most distant" in "all the deeper expressions of modern atheism" and offered examples from the thought of Blake, Hegel and Nietzsche. The only way out of the absolute end, proclaimed by Nietzsche, of everything that has been manifested as consciousness and cosmos, is "opening ourselves," proclaimed Altizer, "to the possibility of the triumph of the kingdom." As in the Sixties, Altizer's language and style of proclamation remain enigmatic and challenging for his listeners.

Arthur Miller, head of the Department of Science and Technology Studies, University College London and also an American, spoke on the topic "Physical Reality - What a Concept!". He defended scientific realism, "the reality of entities that we cannot see or sense." He first provided us with a brief explanation of how we know, although counterintuitively, that elementary particles exist, and then proceeded to examine what this knowledge implies for the philosophy of knowledge. Miller acknowledged that science is a human construct. He maintained, however, that science is universal, transcultural and unique, in as much as it touches upon absolute truth. He noted that Kuhn's concept of paradigm shifts had failed the veracity test, but had started, nevertheless, the movement from sociology of science and social constructivism to scientific relativism and post-modernism. Miller saw "objectivity under attack" and the present American university system subject to "power games." Miller's talk of "absolute truth" and the "theory of everything" provoked some pointed questions in the plenary session with all three speakers.

Abundance was no less evident in the number of celebratory anniversary events. The early morning worship offered silent, listening or walking meditation as options. For the first time open air circle dancing took place after dinner. As Julie Bell its leader explained: "The circle is a symbol of unity and quality through which we can acknowledge the sacredness of the whole of creation and in all life." I chose to "worship" like Blake and the Muggletonians, in the bar, renewing and beginning friendships, both personal and intellectual. On Wednesday evening there was an anniversary dinner which included a tuxedo-clad John Pearson as MC, welcome by Don Cupitt, (short) address by Stephen Mitchell and cake cutting by Pamela Donohue, Conference Secretary.

The Annual General Meeting revealed that the Network, as an organization, is healthy and experiencing a new sense of confidence. Generous donations to the Bursary Fund enabled young people and students to attend this year's Conference. The Youth Commission is up and running, and will sponsor "Definitely Maybe," a weekend for folks aged 16-30. The Religious Education Commission had a successful meeting during Conference. (Religious and moral education are mandatory in all British schools, including state-supported schools.) At AGM, the membership approved continued exploration by the Steering Committee of "the practical possibilities of appointing a development worker."

The final speaker of Conference was Don Cupitt. His topic this year was "From Religious Doctrine to Religious Existence." Although Don's message this year lacked some of the optimism and exuberance of last year's "World Religion," it was characterized by the clarity of thought and depth of perception we have come to expect from "classic Cupitt." In some prefatory remarks, Don reminded us that we must free ourselves from nostalgia for religious life lived in a vast cosmic "power structure." Such a "Heritage-style relaunch of Christianity" has been tried and doesn't work any more. Indeed, it now appears in the "demonic form" of a new "totalizing system." The present task of religious people, Cupitt maintained, is to become "artists" and "to open up space for creativity."

In the body of his lecture, Don began with the observation that "the general religious situation is not encouraging." Heritage-style Christianity cannot halt religion's accelerating decline, and so "Sea of Faith needs somehow to persuade the public that times have changed, and we now know enough about religion to be able to imagine creating something better - I mean very much better." Here came the hopeful note in Cupitt's words, as he proclaimed, what I take to be, the "artisthood of all believers." "If we thus accept that it was always human beings, building their lives out of the symbols, stories, values and rituals that came to hand, who did the real work of religion, than we may be able to accept that the same ordinary individuals must in principle be capable of major religious innovation."

The "central theme" of Cupitt's lecture, however, was the troubling paradox "that in our new technological culture the very same changes that have brought about the downfall of the old worldview and its certainties are also having the effect of expropriating us intellectually to an alarming extent." The "nihilistic nightmare" Cupitt discerned in the third millennium "can be summed up in the three-word formula: technology, entertainment, fundamentalism." In this emerging world the situation of the religious person will be not unlike that of the artist. In finding our own agenda we must look to the artist who "punctures the grandiose totalizing dream by pointing out what it represses, what it tries to forget, the Other." On the constructive side our task is "to persuade a very sceptical world that there is still a vital need for religion. We need to come up with "new visions of the good life and of the good society." To do all this we need to draw upon "the religious imagination."

I left Leicester with a sack full of books to read in the weeks to come, a pile of notes from which to write this report and many friendships to be maintained by post, e-mail and the occasional visit. Aileen La Tourette, Jude Bullock and I laughed and reminisced as we drove back to London. Amid our recollections of intellectual excitement and of fellowship with kindred minds, we all need to remember Don's words of challenge and of hope: "We need somehow to demonstrate that religious existence is still possible, even under today's conditions, and in full recognition of the dark side of life. ... We need new experiments in religious writing and, still more, in religious existence."

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