Leicester Squared

David Boulton takes another look at the 1997 UK conference. This article first appeared in the Autumn 1997 issue of the SoF UK Magazine

It was the best of conferences. It was the worst of conferences. I heard both views expressed as I left Leicester after our tenth annual get-together. It was certainly the oddest of conferences. Who but the Sea of Faith Network would devote the whole of the principal day to three presentations all radically critical of core aspects of the Network's distinctive stance?

Arthur Miller politely declined to engage with "religious faith as a human creation"—and indeed with religious faith understood in any other way. Thomas Altizer offered an impressive impersonation of the prophet Amos, but his message of "Apocalypse Now" was delivered with all the charm of a medieval matron flinging open the window and emptying an over-laden piss-pot on our heads. Altizer the unappetiser... Daphne Hampson told us how deeply dangerous is our notion that religion and the transcendent truth and beauty some call God is wholly human, cultural and language-borne: and we gave her the longest round of applause we have given any of our speakers since Bishop Jack Spong told us that while he was happy to mythologise the bible and the life of Jesus he was sticking with a real God.

The result of this triple-assault was nevertheless hugely invigorating. All three speakers challenged us in ways which demand responses if we are to grow up as a Network.

Arthur Miller took us through the controversies among scientists and philosophers of science between the realists, who see science as the pursuit of objective truth, and the "idealists" or anti-realists for whom the truths of science are simply analogous to the imaginative truths of the arts. The anti-realist view of physics, he told us, has been abandoned by virtually all practising physicists. What does this mean, then, for those who have followed Wittgenstein, Derrida and Cupitt into a whole-hog non-realism which embraces science, psychology, history, language, the arts, philosophy, theology, the lot? Professor Miller said that wasn't his field: he "didn't talk God-language". But it is our field, and the explorations we claim to be engaged in have to face the question: can you be a realist in science (or politics, or mathematics) and a non-realist in religion? Of course not, says Cupitt and half the SoF Network. Of course you can, says Miller and the other half. Discuss.

Tom Altizer's challenge is less theoretical, more practical. Following Nietzsche's proclamation of the "death of God", and drawing on "the atheist visionary Blake's" inspired understanding of the unity of heaven and hell, light and dark, God and humanity, Altizer tells us that we have hardly begun to understand the demands made upon us by the new situation we have created for ourselves by pushing the all-powerful king of kings, Blake's satanic God, off his throne. We have put down the almighty from his seat, but have failed to transfer his sovereignty to ourselves. Altizer's is a lonely, angry voice in the radical antinomian tradition of the seventeenth-century Ranters and Muggletonians, revived in twentieth-century protest politics, anarchism and post-modernism. I'm sure he thinks we in Sea of Faith are too nice, too cosy, too complacent, too damned liberal. He certainly thinks we are a conservative lot. We have nothing to say to the hungry, the wretched and the damned—which is why we too are damned. We think we have pulled down the walls of old Jerusalem, but we are too absorbed in our own "spirituality", in discovering and fulfilling our selves, to commit to the building of a New Jerusalem, the "new Heaven and a new Earth" of, yes, the Apocalypse. Again, discuss.

Daphne Hampson issued more than one challenge. She shares SoF's radical rejection of traditional Christianity but remains a defiant theological realist, worshipping a reality which she believes transcends human knowledge and experience, and which she is happy to continue to call God. She is a non-Christian realist where many in SoF are Christian (or post-Christian) non-realists. But her quarrel with non-realism is not only that it is, in her view, philosophically flawed (she quotes Derrida against Cupitt) but that it isn't radical enough. Non-realists, she says, are happy to take on board the Christian myth as myth, and the symbolism of the creeds as symbolism, but they don't seem to ask themselves whether these are good or bad myths, useful or profoundly dangerous symbols. For her, the myths of the virgin birth and God's assumption of manhood, and the symbolism which pictures God as Father, Lord, King, are bad myths and bad symbolism in that they validate, and were deliberately created to validate, the dominance of men over women. The SoF priest who justifies his recitation of the creeds, formularies and liturgies of the church on the basis that he means what he says symbolically rather than literally is simply perpetuating this monstrous injustice. Now that we really do have to discuss!

After all that, our speaker the following morning, Don Cupitt, might have been tempted to throw away his prepared script and respond to the challenges of our guest-critics. But no. Instead, he chose to issue a ringing challenge of his own. The "instrumental rationality" and modern technologies which helped bury the supernaturalism and superstition of old-time religion are now producing so dehumanized a culture that we face a nihilistic nightmare. Nightmares are best dispelled by visions, and "we need new visions of the good life and of the good society, because so many of the old ones are out of date and so many of the new ones are banal".

Can the Sea of Faith Network dream the new dreams and inspire the new visions? Well, don't let's get above ourselves... But we can play a modest part in the subversion of the old Jerusalem by the new. We can join with others, now with fellow-humanists, now with religious radicals, with poets and playwrights and film-makers and other inspired subversives, to construct alternatives to fundamentalism, nihilism and the dumbing-down of human life.

Cupitt thinks they must be religious alternatives—or, at least, that the search for alternatives is itself religious. We can argue about that. But that's what the Network has to do, and it is going to need all the allies it can get if it is to make any impact in turning the world upside down.

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