God, Self, History, Book

Elizabeth Wilkinson wrote this review of Stephen Mitchell's Agenda for Faith for the January 1998 issue of Quaker Monthly.

My intellectual honesty drove me from Christianity; now I'm wondering whether I'm clever enough to be a non-realist. Reading this 40 page booklet, Agenda for Faith, I sometimes tasted the same altitude sickness as in my philosophy tutorials when my tutor asked me to prove I was not a dream. But though I never felt I fully scaled the peaks of Mitchell's arguments I garnered enough alpine flowers to make it worth the effort.

The author is an Anglican rector and founder member of the Sea of Faith network. This impressive booklet tells of his journey from evangelical Christian to freethinker. The thematic structure of the work is inspired by a quotation from Mark C. Taylor: "God, self, history and book are bound in an intricate relationship in which each one mirrors the other. No single concept can be challenged without altering the others". Much of the book is spent defining these concepts and their implications.

He starts by challenging the view of faith defined by a credal checklist and uses the simile of music to illuminate a non-realist concept of faith. "A good piece of music was one that successfully produced the sorts of experience people valued...Beauty was not something to be found eternally behind or in the music but an aspect of its place in the life of the listener, performer and culture." At this point his abstract argument came alive for me and I read enthusiastically as he drew parallels between religion and art. "An artistic tradition that never changes becomes decadent, and an unchanging faith is lifeless and idolatrous." Is this not the Quaker doctrine of continuing revelation?

He does not need to expend energy in assessing credibility of faith (Can the story of the resurrection be true?) but judges faith by its fruits. He explains that this approach has made him less religiously competitive. "I view other faith traditions as I view the music of other cultures. My ears may not be attuned to it and much of it may pass me by as little more than irritating noise, but it may equally fascinate me and challenge my own tradition."

In "Book" he explores the position of the Bible and introduces the concept that the meaning of any text can be seen as imparted by the reader not author. He challenges the traditional buried treasure approach to text, beloved of those who present the Bible as a historical record of the wishes and actions of God. Mitchell proposes rather that "the bible is to be seen not as a field in which to search for the buried treasure of its meaning but a field upon which to sow interpretative seeds."

The chapter "History" is more theoretical, looking at theories of truth and suggesting that it is more important to focus on areas of agreement than to try to discover an objective reality. He tackles the predictable objection that too much relativity leads to "anything goes". Indeed his concern for living ethically shines out. "With no objective foundation to establish our values, value will have to be given to people and things by us. We shall not see them as having an objective value in themselves but rather they will be seen as valuable and meaningful only in so far as we give them value in our talking and actions. The responsibility is upon us actively to seek out the perceived injustices of our day and create better relationships within our world."

Having found the theorising of "History" hard going, I was relieved when in "Self" Mitchell talked more about his personal journey and refreshed when he quoted a much neglected great man, Socrates, whose lucid stream of thought has been obscured by the Christian behemoth that came after. His definition of self I found original and thought-provoking particularly when we are so frequently urged to reflection and solitude to discover our true self. "To talk about myself is to talk about all the relationships that form me... Before I saw myself as already created, hidden, buried even within. Getting to know myself was a process of unearthing that buried soul. Now, I see myself as created and re-created within the communities to which I belong." As an extrovert in a predominantly introvert Society of Friends I felt that was ministry aimed straight at me.

This concept of self influences his use of prayer, now emphasising responsibility rather than guilt, who to pray with rather than who to pray to. "Prayer used to begin with me, my desires, my thoughts and thanksgivings. Now it begins with the community. It is a reflection upon society and the relationships within it."

I'm fond of the cliche "Man made god in his image" so was not surprised at the deity I met in the chapter "God". Just as Mitchell sees his self as a web rather than a point, so he states, "an exploration of god is an exploration of the community of god". He presents the living nature of god as dependent on believers—no practising believers, no god. (I did wonder whether he had read Terry Pratchett's Small Gods—another book I recommend.) But some of his arguments on the nature of god lost me and I gratefully regained my bearings as he tackled the question I am so often asked, "If you don't believe in an external god why bother with religion?" Stephen Mitchell's answer resonated with me: "The rituals of faith are worth bothering with in so far as they fire our imagination and empower us to work through human issues."

This is not only an intelligent and very quotable booklet (the sentence "A faith which makes no difference is not a faith in God" is worthy of a bumper sticker) but also a very personable one, written with genuineness and generosity of spirit. I feel I have met Stephen Mitchell, a man who combines considerable intellectual power and humanity, and also gained an insight into others' thinking. Personal credos by male clergy can strike me as arrogant. I never felt this because he clearly acknowledges his debt to others who now populate my reading list. My advice is to read this booklet for the imagery, the humanity, the openings and don't be put off if the air gets a bit rarefied.