Seduced by the Siren of Common Sense Stephen Mitchell, rector of Holy Trinity, Barrow on Soar, Leicestershire UK, and current chair of the UK SOF Steering Committee. This article first appeared in the Guardian's 'Face to Faith' column in April 1994.

I'm a radical, evangelical, non-realist, practising priest of the Church of England. The local press prefers "godless vicar".

I'm a radical because Joan Bakewell called me that in a Heart of the Matter television programme at Easter, but also, as a founder member of the Sea of Faith Network, that's how I sometimes describe myself. I'm an evangelical because I trained at an evangelical college and still have a passionate belief in the value of religious faith. And I'm a non-realist because I'm against common-sense religion.

Common sense is the death of religion. It robs faith of its energy and leaves the rest of the world unchallenged. Like the Sirens, common sense seduces voyagers from their journeys of exploration. Faith then becomes trapped in the alluring questions of the TV presenter and opinion pollster. Do you believe in God? Do you believe in life after death? Do you believe in the Virgin Birth? Say yes to at least eight out of ten and you'll be put down as a believer. Score less than five and you're sunk.

Yet those who practise a faith do not start from such speculative questions. They begin with an exploration of prayer and worship, a journey through the scriptures in the company of the saints. They pursue justice and peace and seek a renewal of the mind and new worlds. Immersing themselves in all this, they are immersing themselves in their God, the God in whom they live and move and have their being. Contrasting the world of common sense and the world beyond sense—the natural and the supernatural—forces life apart.

The radical, "non-realist" strategy attempts to undo common sense and remake the mind in order that religious language might take root in every part of our thinking and being. Christians, for example, speak of their baptism as a dying with Christ and rising to new life. In their worship they say: "we are the body of Christ". Common sense says this is poetic imagery pointing to hidden, supernatural truths. But the language of faith is sacramental. Not pointing to Christ but identifying with Christ—an identification which defies common sense views of time, space and personal identity.

I listen to a friend describing a unique experience he had whilst engaged in Zen meditation. He too has an experience of being at one with the people and the world around him. Such is the nature of religious language and experience. And if we are to regain something of its life and power, then it's common sense that has to be challenged.

Radical faith starts from the language and experience of believers. Radicals are accused of trying to harmonise faith with modern science and popular opinion. Yet non-realism challenges both. It seeks to get rid of those polarisations upon which so much common sense science and opinion is based. Putting everything within the free and unbounded, all-pervasive world of language, non-realism collapses the common sense distinctions between fact and fiction, story and history, imagination and reality.

First we get rid of an Upstairs-Downstairs view of reality. It's too enslaving: downstairs becomes the shadowy world of servants who toil away and have little control over their lives; upstairs is the dazzling world of those who pull the strings. Any contrast between a world "up there" or "out there" and this world—be it heaven and earth, life now and life after death, the divine and the human, reality and theory—robs this world of value and our lives of meaning.

Then we move from history to story in the way we use texts. Attempts to strip out a historical backbone from religious texts leaves them gutted. Looking for the true meaning of texts is equally fruitless. They are scores to be performed. The stories of faith have to become the stories of our lives. We create their meanings and project them on to the world. Ideas about truth change too. Truth becomes not a matching of theory to reality but a search for common stories to make our world. Truth about self also dissolves into the stories of our lives.

Even this brief sketch of the non-realist strategy—a move not dissimilar to the move from representational art to abstract art—is sufficient to show why it proves to be so unpopular. It leaves no stone unturned. It rubs both atheists and theists up the wrong way. It brings science down a peg and leaves the institutional church wondering how to embrace more artistic notions of faith and truth. Its credal boundaries are robbed of their defining power. It also shows where radicals are failing. Talk about a credible, non-supernatural faith and a humanist Christianity may give the impression that everything else stays as it is. But if commonsense religion is turned on its head, so are commonsense ethics, education, politics, economics and every other aspect of human life and love. If radicals brought their non-realist faith to this agenda then people would see the point in it.

So faith is like art. It wells up from the heart of human life and culture. Like art it moves us and motivates us, changes and challenges our vision. Or like the sea, faith is ever changing. Restlessly, it erodes the familiar landmarks and creates new coastlines. It leaves us disorientated and exhilarated. For voyagers on the sea of faith, the voice of common sense says Stay put. Don't go. But for those who set sail, nothing is ever the same again. Even the voice of the Sirens.

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