Do we speak the same language?

Editorial by Jonathan Clatworthy

from Signs of the Times, No. 30 - Jul 2008

Recently in the local wine bar I found myself in unfamiliar company, sitting at a table next to a medium and opposite a committed member of the British Humanist Association.

I had not met either before, but this was the weekly local meeting of Philosophy in Pubs. The regulars know each other’s views. Whenever religion gets mentioned - almost always disparagingly - they turn to the retired vicar in their midst to see how I will respond. These meetings remind me how marginal, or even absurd, Christianity and its institutions seem to many people. I often find myself the only one arguing that it is rational to believe in a spiritual being; but on this occasion it seemed important to set limits to the number I believed in.

I am no stranger to the art of defending Christianity. At the age of seven, dutiful vicar’s son that I was, I got into trouble for beating up a smaller boy in the school playground because he had not been in church the previous Sunday. At ten, in my new boarding school, the first time I witnessed one boy beating up another, I said ‘Don’t hit him; hit me’. I thought it was my Christian duty. This made me instantly famous and I was taunted with reminders for years afterwards. Between then and now I have spent most of my time as a parish priest or university chaplain; nevertheless being face to face with a humanist and a medium at once made me feel like a foolhardy missionary exploring darkest Liverpool.

While I was present these two had nothing to say to each other but a great deal to say to me. The medium took for granted that I would not only disbelieve in her activities but also disapprove of them, and in reply she argued that her messages from the dead include more than enough accurate information to prove that the spirits of the dead really are making contact, no matter how much science scoffs.

The humanist illustrated the scoffing perfectly. Science establishes facts on the basis of empirical evidence and there is no evidence for the existence of God. If religion were based on evidence there would not be so many competing religions all disagreeing with each other. Religious faith contributes nothing to our understanding of the world. Apart from an articulate Muslim who supported me, I felt attacked from both sides. To one I did not believe enough, to the other I believed too much.

Both had their expectations about what I as a clergyman would believe. They were the usual ones; I would be a stereotypical otherworldly theorist committed to unrealistic beliefs irrespective of the real world’s evidence to the contrary. This is the kind of position we used to call ‘fundamentalism’ but is now more often called ‘conservatism’.

Had I been one of those - totally committed to the supreme, reason-transcending authority of the Bible or papal pronouncements, or the postmodern idea that Christianity is simply incommensurable with other theories of reality - my stance would have had to be ‘I happen to know that you are wrong and I am right, but I cannot give you reasons until you accept what I say about the supreme source of truth’. There would be no possibility of an engagement which listens, makes new connections and discovers new insights. Such a ‘conservative’ would not have been able to acknowledge the points of contact with the supportive Muslim, let alone the atheist or the medium.

As a missionary encounter the event was completely unplanned. Organized missionary activities need advance planning, decisions about whom to approach and what to say and do to them. Once the plans have been made and the training given, missionaries have an agenda and are therefore in danger of creating artificial relationships with the objects of their attention. To engage in organized mission can often mean to stop being oneself, to put one’s brain into a different gear and perhaps even to speak a different language. If, heaven forbid, a diocesan officer reads this and decides to send an evangelist to these meetings in order to make converts, the attempt will simply reinforce the hostility to Christianity.

What the medium and the humanist had in common was that they both appealed to public human experience; in one case the correlation between messages from the dead and the memories of the living, in the other the accumulated data of scientists. In theory it should have been possible for the two of them to examine each other’s evidence and seek consensus about the existence of spirits of the dead. Both assumed - wrongly - that I as a Christian priest would not share that evidence-based approach. The only Christian accounts of reality they knew of were evidence-defying fundamentalisms.

In fact, however, despite the claims of what we might call the ‘new conservatives’ within Christianity, the doctrines of the world’s major religions developed out of attempts to explain experience. The experiences have varied immensely: seers observing the flights of birds, prophets interpreting voices in their heads, exiled Judeans puzzling out why their god allowed them to be sent into exile, Galileans trying to make sense of their sightings of Jesus after he had been publicly killed, Reformation theologians trying to justify the authority of the Bible without buying into the Catholic Church’s authority to interpret it. Later on, when the original significance of doctrines is forgotten, ‘conservatives’ revive them by inventing new significances, often claiming that the doctrines were revealed by God and therefore override mere human reason. When they do this they not only turn their tradition into a fossilized relic from the past; they suppress the necessary process of asking truth questions about matters of religion.

For this reason the kind of Christianity which is called ‘liberal’ these days - though it ought to be called ‘traditional’ Christianity - is perfectly at home in debates with unbelievers and those of other faiths. We do not need to stand on a pedestal of our own creating. Like atheists and mediums we believe what we believe because it seems to us the best way to explain the way things are; and because they hold their contrasting beliefs for similar reasons, it should be possible to speak the same language and hear each other with sympathy and respect.

Against the atheist I argued that science does not reject all unobservables. On the contrary it generates countless hypotheses about unobservables in order to account for things we do observe; and to the extent that the existence of God also helps explain some of our experiences, believing in God is equally rational. Against the medium I argued (only a bit, due to shortage of time) that when we acknowledge the existence of unobservables because of somebody’s experience, we do more than just accept one person’s word for it. We check it against other people’s experiences and examine how it fits, or does not fit, the theories of reality which society has built up over the centuries in order to make sense of them all.

The new conservatives who refuse to engage in this way may feel secure in their tiny world but they deprive themselves of the most natural means of evangelism. The liberal’s willingness to speak a shared language and seek common ground is essential not only to dialogue others but also to keeping Christian beliefs credible and relevant.

Jonathan Clatworthy lives in Liverpool and is MCU General Secretary. He has worked as a parish priest, university chaplain and lecturer in Ethics.