Is SOF a Cheshire Cat?

David Beverly takes up David Jenkins' accusation (in 'The Calling of a Cuckoo') that SoF is a 'Cheshire Cat'. David Beverly is a priest in Scunthorpe.

In the penultimate chapter of The Calling of a Cuckoo, in one of his wonderful characteristic sweeps of language, David Jenkins dismisses the Sea of Faith Movement, likening its theology to the Cheshire Cat whose 'fading smile or grin remains when the body has utterly evaporated.' (p.159) I would suggest that this is an unfortunate caricature of a theology of vital importance to the church, and worthy of more than a paragraph's dismissal.

The essential tenet of the Sea of Faith approach to theology, as I understand it, is that faith is a human creation. The essence of faith for Sea of Faith is not, as he jibes, a fading illusion, but a dynamic act of creativity. This opens the way to a plurality that is at the same time susceptible of critique on the grounds of our recognition of its human origin. There is implicit too in the approach of the Sea of Faith that faith, like language, arises out of the human situation and is shaped by culture, history, experience, story and circumstance. This helps us to face up to the possibility that we can create bad faith as well as good, and thus gives a coherent clue as to why faith is implicated in so much violence and oppression, a question with which David Jenkins struggled in his book. It may go some way to explaining why fundamentalist groups who insist on an all-good external deity have in effect to create also a strong external devil to accompany it!

The Sea of Faith option opens a way of understanding the complexity of faith, and yet at the same time renders it susceptible of rational critique. This open approach offers a way to avoid both dogmatic atheism and religious fundamentalism, which is a position for which David Jenkins strongly argues in his book. The SoF approach to theology, rather than leaving a passing shadow, firmly places responsibility on humans to create faith and meaning, and for those within the Christian Tradition, presumably this means creating theology, liturgy and practice that encourages this process. It would seem that there are traditional Christian symbols, stories and insights that can be used creatively in this respect; and especially in my view, aspects of Jesus' teaching concerning the 'realm of God'.

This has a widespread knock-on effect particularly, for instance, for the Eucharist. Here there is a need to move to a theology of the banquet as a gathering-in in love and festivity of people seeking a new inclusive society, rather than on redemption and anticipation of the second coming! In the Anglican tradition, 'Common Worship' offers choices of many words, but few real theological choices.

Sea of Faith recognises the importance of rejecting the notion of an after-life, in contrast to thinkers like Jack Spong and John Hick. The removal of the other realm, which faith as a human creation entails, brings the focus back onto life now, the need to find fulfilment in it, and the imperative to work for justice and right for all. It brings the chilling realisation that we live on for better or worse in others and the communities and world we have sought to create. This is an insight that in bereavement removes the focus from absence of a loved one to the awareness of their continued presence and influence in our lives.

In reacting to David Jenkins' statement, I asked myself if I was one of his 'certainty wallahs' who was trapped in a secular view of life. On reflection I feel that this cannot be said of followers of the Sea of Faith movement, since to posit faith as a human creation is to affirm that it is subject to development and modification, susceptible of both creative and destructive influences, and indeed glorious and yet fallible.

I share these few reasons as to why the Sea of Faith offers a theology that is realistic, rooted in the present with its eye to the future, and profoundly committed, as is David Jenkins, to justice and re-shaping human life. I conclude by saying that while there is much I admire in the man, in his theological openness, in his commitment to justice and right, I feel impelled to suggest that David Jenkins is mistaken in likening the Sea of Faith Movement to the fading grin of the Cheshire Cat!

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