CHRISTIAN THEISTS AND CHRISTIAN ATHEISTS
This review of a Wychwood meeting was written for the local magazine 'The Wychwood' (April/May 2013)
Earlier this year Wychwood Library saw over 20 people assemble for Wychwood Circle’s visiting speaker. Canon Brian Mountford, Vicar of St Mary the Virgin’s, the University Church in Oxford, spoke about his recent book “Christian Atheist: Belonging without Believing”, a title which seemed to tempt along many who don’t go for Christian as a label or don’t go for Atheist, or feel there must be common ground to explore between the two.
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, well he would call his own outlook on life ‘religious’. So roles seemed to be reversed and Brian has had a number of similar conversations with members of his Oxford city congregation. Many choose to belong because of the music, or th Anglican liturgy, or because a partner sings in the choir. They are drawn to religious ethics, language, art and community. 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?”
Brian’s congregation will not be alone in being grateful to be told that you can be a Christian in this sense without anyone else’s permission. Many, he said, were looking to be taken out of themselves – by the aesthetics of an ancient ceremony in a beautiful building, by a sense of ‘the other’. Karen Armstrong, whose book we read last year, was fond of the Greek word ekstasis – stepping out of yourself – and others with a psychoanalytical bent might emphasise the benefits of leaving our ego behind. But who is to say, as was voiced by our group, that this couldn’t be done through a Pink Floyd concert as well as Handel’s Messiah, a country walk as much as cathedral architecture?
The same day Radio 4’s Something Understood was on the theme ‘Should I stay or should I go?’ Religion, it said, may originate from the root ‘to bind’. Church, on the other hand, should ideally feel like home. So apparently it’s ok to go to church – or even to believe in Jesus’s God – because you want to rather than because you are ready to believe six impossible things before breakfast.
So, six months on, we might ask yourselves: what exactly is it 'to believe'? Marcus Borg, hearking back to the Old English be loef, prefers to read it as 'to belove'. Karen Armstrong too relates the word back to its Middle English meaning of 'to prize, to value, to hold dear'. The word 'faith' similarly has acquired some new connotations since its translation from the Greek pistis which meant 'trust, engagement, commitment' or the Latin fides which means 'loyalty'. All this is very different from thinking you have to assent to a set of intellectual propositions before you can say you 'believe in God'. It also offers some promising new (or old) meanings for a contemporary definition of being 'a Christian'. What fun you can have once you start connecting up pre-modern with post-modern!
On September 8th Wychwood Circle returns to this broad theme when it will be led by an invited guest, Revd Andy Thayer, associate priest in the Chase Benefice (Chadlington, Ascott, etc), actor, musician, and theologian, who is currently working on a doctorate at Oxford University. His provocative title is: "Thank God I'm an atheist".
Do join us at Wychwood Library in High Street, Milton under Wychwood, from 7pm to about 9pm on Sunday 8th September. The following meeting is scheduled for October 6th and will be led by Ian Cave, an atheist and one of the founders of the group in 2012.