Saturday 9 March 2013


Belonging without believing 

Wychwood Library was full to bursting on March 3rd when Canon Brian Mountford visited us to talk about his recent book, Christian Atheist: Belonging without Believing.  It was heartening on this Wychwood Circle's first anniversary, or very nearly, to see that this subject sparked such interest.  Clearly many were tempted along who perhaps are not happy with the label ‘Christian’, but don’t feel comfortable with settling for ‘Atheist’ either and couldn’t help wondering if even a Church of England vicar might help them explore some common ground.

The title, Brian told us, originated with a conversation with Philip Pullman, the Oxford author.  The Canon, maybe trying to emphasize his credentials as a man of the world, said he would describe himself as ‘secular’; to which Pullman (an atheist) said he would say his own outlook on life was ‘religious’. So roles seemed to be reversed and Brian has had a number of similar discussions and interviews with members of his Oxford city congregation before and since.  Many choose to belong because of the music, or the Anglican liturgy, or because a partner sings in the choir.  Brian welcomes them all and the question of belief, in the sense of signing up to a certain body of doctrine, becomes secondary. The more important question is: “how shall I be?”

Some twenty years ago someone wrote a book about ‘Believing without Belonging’ – at a time when people were confident in their own spiritual or religious beliefs but didn’t necessarily want to ‘belong’ – and the issue of belief is worth exploring.  Karen Armstrong, the first author we studied in our Wychwood Library group last year, insists that Jesus himself did not insist on people ‘believing’ before he would heal them, in the way many of us have been taught. The word ‘faith’ is our Bible translation of a Greek word meaning ‘trust, loyalty, engagement, commitment’. This was the sense in which faith, Jesus said, would move mountains.  Even in Middle English, beliven meant ‘to prize, to value, to hold dear’ (and the word Belieber didn’t come till much later, in an age of teenage idols!).  Mark Vernon (How to be an Agnostic) makes a similar point when he draws the distinction which held over much of human history between ‘spirituality’ as ‘the more existential side of religion’ and ‘religion’ as ‘the more practical side of spirituality’: ‘Believing in such and such was more like saying you trust it, or are committed to it.  Now, though, to be religious means, most commonly I think, an individual affirmation of metaphysical beliefs, rather than a way of life which is practised.’

One of the first questions that arose in the discussions at Wychwood Library with Brian Mountford was the relevance of, or need for, religion: some said they can be ‘taken out of themselves’ just as well by nature or beauty – or even a Pink Floyd concert - as by a beautiful liturgy or a wonderful building.  On the same day the Radio 4 programme Something Understood began by questioning whether ‘religion’ was a useful word, given its origins in the verb ‘to bind’.  Even the Jesuit author Gerard W Hughes (God of Surprises, God in All Things) has pointed out that Jesus, for one, does not once mention religion, or religious observance, or orthodox religious belief or any other kind of belief: ‘Neither does he provide a list of moral precepts on which we shall be judged. It is not that these matters are unimportant: it is simply that they are not what matters most.’

One of the more controversial points made by Brian Mountford was to point out that Jesus didn’t say he was God.  (The title ‘son of God’, by the way, was given to both Roman emperors from Augustus onwards, and, in other contexts, first-century miracle workers) Neither did Jesus pull the wool over his companions’ eyes by pretending that the earth was flat when he knew full well it wasn’t.  There are dangers in anthropomorphising God (“he looked down on us, he wondered what to do next”) and also in divinising Christ (“he knew everything”).  If Incarnation means anything it means Jesus was fully human, whatever other qualities may have been ascribed to him then or later.
Clearly that debate is not over and we are still left to wonder, as Rowan Williams pointed out in a review of another controversial author, Geza Vermes, 'why this particular charismatic wonder-worker rather than others attracted the extraordinary claim that he was the vehicle of unconditional creative power and the enabler of a new kind of worship.'  As the Wychwood Circle forum gathers again on April 7th at Wychwood Library, we will be beginning discussions based on chapters from the 2011 book by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (someone who certainly does not believe that Jesus was God):  The Great Partnership: God, Science and the Search for Meaning.  

Join us then. 

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