Sunday, 30 November 2014

Pain, frustration and Advent Hope

I’ve spent a fair amount of time in the last two weeks wondering why I’ve been unable to write a blog post. I’ve started two – the first a reflection on the lack of out gay bishops in the C of E and the second on the ethics of ‘outing’ people – and been unable to finish them.

It’s only this evening that I’ve figured out what’s going on.

I’ve realized I’ve been caught up in a matrix of frustration and pain. I know. That's sounds a bit over the top. And maybe it is. But this ‘matrix’ has elements of the personal and the corporate, and it’s only now that Advent has arrived that I can begin to articulate their meaning.

Firstly, the personal. My health woes have been documented (‘over-documented’?) on this blog. Truth is, things are ok and I have very little to complain about most of the time. But I do find the gastro-related pain a bit wearing. I’m eating some food and I’m being very careful, but basically everything I’m eating is causing pain. I have access to decent pain relief, but that pain relief itself has side-effects. When all of this is figured into a world marked by slowly moving NHS gears and a(n over-)busy life it can all get a bit frustrating. I can be a right bloody grump. It can lead to a pretty jaded reading of reality. I apologise to anyone who's had to put up with that recently!

But these personal factors have been caught up in my frustration with more corporate matters to do with ‘The Church’. (I put those words in ‘scare’ quotes to indicate my acknowledgement that to blame the ‘whole’ church is slightly absurd.) Ultimately, I get frustrated that the church isn't quite as 'sorted' as many of us would like it to be. I think of my mate Lucy Gorman’s recent experience of a church in Hull – a church she grew up in – that felt it could not stick a poster advertising Hull’s LGBT Fellowship on the church noticeboard. From that ‘detail’ I then think of the appalling treatment of LGBT people in various parts of the world and how the leadership of the C of E seemingly won’t stand up and speak out about the tragic human cost. I also think of the list of trans men and women that was read out at last week’s Trans Day of Remembrance event in Manchester – a list of over 250 people killed for being trans in the past year – and how far skewed readings of faith beliefs might have been a motivating factor in murder and its attempted justification. And so on…

I know I am tired and frustrated and in pain and often a grump because of it. I know that in so many ways the world seems to be moving forward and that I, like so many, live a life of extreme privilege. And I know, only too well, that for people of faith the feeling of ‘why can’t the institution be shaped according to my beliefs’ is a common (and faintly ridiculous) one.

To be in the season of Advent is helpful, however. If we can allow ourselves to resist – however feebly – the tinsel and mammon-fest that December has become, Advent offers a space for pause, reflection and waiting in anticipation. It is a kind of matrix of hope.

I choose the word ‘matrix’ deliberately. In terms of the Latin root, ‘matrix’ is a term of fecundity – a word for a body capable of reproduction. This can have oppressive implications (e.g., of a body used for breeding), but I want to claim ‘matrix’ as a positive - as a place of possibility; as a place of darkness, not in a negative sense, but as a place of warmth, of incubation and of new life.

We are always in cultural and discursive matrixes, and Advent is a point of origin – of news and beginnings and the rehearsal of beginnings. Advent might be seen as gesturing towards what Judith Butler calls a structure of relations that makes individual acts of will possible, providing their “enabling cultural condition”.

To put it simply, Advent is a womb, a point of origin. It offers the possibility of good news – of good news that might be anticipated, but cannot yet be seen or known.

I feel the positive power of that in my personal life. But I sense also its truth in the corporate struggles for new life, justice and good news that are going on in the wider church. To place current birth-pangs in a context of Advent isn’t (it seems to me) to justify all the crap. But it offers the promise that the crap might be part of a hope-filled story.

Saturday, 29 November 2014

Interview on Premier Radio

For anyone who missed it, you can catch up on the recent interview I gave to Hannah Scott-Joynt as part of her Travellers' Tales feature. I talk about the various threads of my travels through faith and unbelief - gender, sexuality, illness and so on.
Please forgive the abrupt start. I suspect the tech-elf might have been having a bad day!
The interview can be found here.

Friday, 14 November 2014

Honest To God: Faith, Disbelief & Constructions

A couple of weeks back both old and new media were all a-splutter over a headline which read, ‘2% of Anglican priests don’t believe in God’ (The Independent. October27th). Lifted from a YouGov poll of over 1500 clergy on a range of topics, it was a headline designed for our ‘click-bait’ age. Just one glance at it conjured images of head-shaking and spoon-dropping over the breakfast tables of those who still give a damn what happens in the church.

I guess the headline made a good newspaper story. The suggestion that 2% of Anglican clergy surveyed in the poll see God as a human construct and that 16% are inclined to agnosticism makes for good copy. Linda Woodhead’s follow-up comments in The Church Times on the survey – which she developed with YouGov for the Faith Debates series – are more nuanced, noting how clergy, from all traditions, share in an overwhelming sense of commitment to a personal God.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that Independent headline – clickbait though it was – and the various reactions I’ve heard to it. I’ve read comments that cover a gamut from ‘Typical C of E’, ‘Boot them out’ to ‘It shows how hard it is to leave ministry’. I’ve been thinking about the headline because I’ve found some of the reactions unhelpful. I want to offer the beginnings of a defence of those in ministry who might struggle with God’s ‘reality’, even to the point of seeing him/her/it as a construct. And that defence is predicated on a sense that we should not parody those who – sometimes with the utmost rigour and boldness – are exploring the possibilities of faith and doubt and reason in a crucible of modern and post-modern thought.

I guess I should flag up that I’m no ‘Sea of Faith’ cleric. I have a strong sense of the reality of God and a faith in a personal God. I am also someone who knows what it means to move from a place of atheism to a place of faith in my personal narrative. At the same time, my training as a philosopher – primarily in secular settings – has taught me to be suspicious, rigorous and questioning. If I have a strong sense of ‘the reality of God’ I also question what those terms mean and am inclined to see the old lines – which shaped ‘The Sea of Faith’ movement, for example – between ‘Realism’ and ‘Anti-Realism’ as a questionable dichotomy.

It is easy to take a headline like ‘2% of Anglican priests blah’ and read that through the prism of ‘x has lost his/her faith and is a time-server, not wanting to lose their pension’ or ‘x should be disciplined for error’. However, I’ve known some clergy – often of a certain post-60s vintage – for whom their engagement with modern critical thought has led them to a place where, yes, in all honesty, they’ve felt a need to affirm God as human construct, but nonetheless want to assert that God and religion have a key, active place to play in humanity’s endless constructions of its realities.

It is now common coin for many atheists to parody Christian (and any religious) faith as a belief in a kindly Sky-Fairy or some grouchy All-Father/Bloke with Beard who serves up nice things for some and rubbish for others. Most thoughtful Christians will blanch at this parody and know that far more nuanced understandings of God are available. But we also need to be prepared to examine our faith in the light of challenges raised by recent thought. Otherwise it’s likely to look comedically inept to some of our more sophisticated critics (who generally don't fall into the Sky-Fairy camp). (Whatever one feels about Radical Orthodoxy, one has to accept that Millbank, Pickstock et al have at least spent a bit of time in the company of recent critical thought.)

I’ve spent half of my life wrestling with philosophical texts by the likes of Derrida, Foucault, Lacan, Wittgenstein, Hegel, and so on. I know I’m inclined to take texts and textuality far too seriously, but I feel like I’d be betraying my faith if I didn’t expose its meanings and possibilities to the work of thinkers who have examined the aporias and questions at the heart of logocentric identity and thought. I am – as I’ve already indicated – very serious about my faith and that of others, but when I say ‘I believe in God’ any number of questions and qualifications to and about that statement go through my head. It strikes me as childish to say that that statement is not complex, compromised and part of a matrix of discourses which create and construct our realities. Representation is unavoidable.

I guess I’m asking for a kind of generosity in our readings of headlines like ‘2% of Clergy don’t believe in God.’ I suspect that’s asking for a lot from the sometimes blunt tool that is the media, both social and traditional. I suspect we need more Christians, lay and ordained, who are prepared to seriously engage with the various questions raised by post-structuralism, post-modernity, feminism et al. I’d also like to see more atheists – especially those who tend to deploy scientistic and positivistic strategies – submit their claims to the critical challenges of radical thought. It might help us all to be a bit more humble.