Monday, 31 October 2011

St Paul's: A plea for theological humility?

I love my younger brother - he is intelligent, sensitive and cultured. However, among his many gifts, I have yet to discover any particular skill as a theologian. Thus, I realised that something was afoot when -via Twitter - he began to get involved in what might be called 'religious and theological commentary'. When my marvellous brother - secular and indifferent to church machinations - piles into a debate I sense something extraordianry is happening.

Indeed, one of the intriguing dimensions of the ongoing events around St Paul's (has anyone dubbed it StPaulsgate yet?!? Oh, Lord have mercy, have I just said it??) is the joyous abandon with which secular commentators and journos have plunged into telling the world what Jesus would be up to in the midst of confusion, ire and passion of OccupyLSX. In a move as old as the Crucifixion, much fun has been had on the part of commentators saying that right now, this moment, Jesus isn't hanging out in church but on the steps. Most agree that 'Jesus is a Socialist, innit?', and depending upon where one is on the political spectrum, this statement will guide your take on what's happening both inside and outside St Paul's.

It really will come as little surprise that as an old socialist and someone with an instinctive feel for liberative theological approaches I am inclined to go with a theological perspective that places Christ beyond the walls of establishment, class privilege and the warm halls of the powerful. The Jesus of the Gospels clearly was far more interested in the depredations of Mammon than the rather cheap modern debates Christians are inclined to have about what one does with one's private parts or what physical bits one must (or don't need to) have in order to be a Bishop. It strikes me that any attempt to turn Christ into the prophet of profitability and the bottom line is the very worst kind of idolatry.

Nonetheless, there is a need for nuance (and I pray to God that I am not buying into some lazy stereotype of Anglican compromise). 'Where is Christ in the midst of St Pauls and OccupyLSX?' is a subtler question than it at first appears to an instinctively uncompromising mind like my own. For my sense is that God is the one who resists our easy designations and our desire for ready consolation. What do I mean?

Let me give an example from my own case. For a socialist and radical like myself one of the 'ready consolations' of this situation is that it shows up just how compromised the Church of England is in the powers and principalities of mammon and power. It can lead me to almost delight in the fall of individuals and institutions I see as overly compromised by their connections with money and amoral power without responsibility. And there is part of me that feels precisely that way.

And yet there is a danger in this approach. For there is a danger of pretending that I - and my 'holy' perspective - is not compromised in any way. And I am always suspicious of the clarity and certainty that comes from being oversure and overconvinced of my perspective. A healthy dose of the hermeneutics of suspicion really is well worth while. For both me and pretty much all of us are people of unclean hands and unclean lips. We are the compromised and, if I'm honest, I know that I am caught up in exploitative capitalism and social advantage in ways in which I would often prefer not to acknowledge.

This - of course - is not an argument for a kind of quietism. I still think that the system I am caught up in is exploitative and unfair, etc, and I am committed to change, but a moments reflection makes me cautious about lording it over the fall of individuals and institutional structures. Or to put it another way: I am cautious about my instinct that says that Jesus is entirely outside the walls of St Paul's and hanging around in the protester's camp. That just feels too easy for me - it makes God too small.

God strikes me both as wanting to reveal and expose reality/truth and invite people to transformation. One massive dimension of this is surely the exposure of our current financial ways of going on as massively exploitative, privileging the few (of which I am one) over the many and the rich over the poor. Living out the Kingdom is surely about being the kind of person who works to transform that system. This god is found in the likes of Giles Fraser, many of the OccupyLSX and countless others regardless of faith or lack of it. But this God too also wants to expose fundamental human arrogance and pride, regardless of politics or perspective - the kind of pride, in my own case and many others, that makes me a little too sure about where God is and where God isn't.


  1. Well said. A reflective post, which actually stopped me in my self-satisfied, selfish tracks.

    God wouldn't need to be on the steps alongside the OccupyLSX people, or in the Cathedral with the Clergy and worshippers. He is there, and everywhere all of the time. It's our clarity of vision that just can't see him working, particularly is we feel the need to ask, What would Jesus Do? or Where would Jesus be?.

    He is alongside all in this situation, as he is with us writing about it. His spirit guides and leads us - discernment of it, might be simpler if we took the time to listen for it.

    I see that the Arch Bishop has now spoken out about this situation, at last, and end to the silence, which has so confused me. I'm not saying that it solves anything, but it at least it feels that we are no longer alone caring about what has happened and what may happen.

  2. A good piece Rachel. Isn't this all making the case for disestablishment though? The contrast between the uncomfortableness of the Church [OK, St Pauls...] with OccupyLSX [ordinary protestors] and the clear "fitting like a glove" of its involvement with the Royal Wedding [privilege/wealth/power] has been quite revealing. WWJD, indeed.

  3. You probably won't be surprised that I have been rather keen on disestablishment for some time...

  4. Riding Lights drove the point home with a modern version of the pharisee & the tax collector; the Pharisee was the Reformed drug addict whose self satisfaction was set against the desperately 'umble but priggish traditionalist - they were celebrating the King James Bible though!

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