A staff away day (in my house, bizarrely) was followed late this afternoon by the Confirmation of Election of the new Bishop of Southwark at St Mary-le-Bow, Cheapside in London. The process (as I am discovering for myself) is rather byzantine, but it involves the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Bishop of London, a rank of lawyers in wigs and a lot of witnesses. The Archbishop of York was there, too.
I went from this event – full of wonderful old language and ceremony – to a place associated with old language and ceremony – St Paul’s Cathedral – for an hour and a half of clear language and no ceremony at all (other than getting past the doorman). From internal church stuff I moved to the stuff of the world outside.
‘Uncertain Minds: What an Agnostic Can Believe’ was the title of one of a series of discussions with interesting thinkers convened by St Paul’s Cathedral and the Guardian newspaper. It represents part of an attempt to create a constructive conversation about God and religion and is described by the Guardian’s Andrew Brown as “for those readers who prefer conversation to cage fighting”. Mark Vernon, one of the interlocutors with Professor Terry Eagleton this evening, describes the evening events as being “about belief and unbelief in an age of uncertainty. Our hope is to encourage a more sophisticated public discussion about religion between those on the inside and outside of faith.”
Of course, one of Eagleton’s contentions is that no one is ‘outside of faith’ and that even Richard Dawkins exercises faith every day: faith that his house will be there when he gets home or that his chair will support him, for example.
Eagleton gave a compressed account of a compressed lecture from matters raised in his book Reason, Faith and Revolution: reflections on the God Debate (commented on here). Aside from discussion of the tendency of people on all sides to demonise those with whom they disagree, discussion raomed across the difficulty of speaking of God without resorting to ‘evidence’, the nature of faith, the importance of the ‘body’, and the nature of language. En route we passed Marx, McCabe, MacIntyre, Aquinas, Aristotle, Plato and Giles Fraser.
The important thing about the event was that it was intelligent, thoughtful and respectful. It didn’t ultimately nail every aspect of the nature of reality, but it raised the discussion to a better and more reasonable level of engagement. Even ‘certainty’ got a philosophical boost: one of the funnier observations of an evening containing many funny observations was Eagleton’s that “liberalism is fearful of certainty” and – as if to demonstrate the point – that contemporary ‘yoof’ language reflects this. “It is 9 o’clock’ is far to certain; so now we say, ‘It’s… like… 9 o’clock’.
Eagleton repeated his demolition job on the aunt sallies set up by the New Atheists. The god Dawkins sets up in order to knock down is a god most of us don’t recognise as God. Dawkins’ god is a caricature of something that ought to be rejected by anyone with a shred of intelligence or decency. It just happens not to be the God most of us do believe in. As MacIntyre was said to have said:
The God rejected in the nineteenth century was the one invented in the seventeenth century.
It was useful also to be reminded of the importance of theology (and theological language) for politics. Whereas 1960s theology aligned (or even associated) theology with politics, theology cannot be reduced to the political: theology always has to critique the political. This leads the Marxist Eagleton to state that “the trouble with radical politics is that it isn’t radical enough – it doesn’t go to the roots”; politics needs a deeper critique from without.
The discussion of language was stimulating. Eagleton described the temptation of fundamentalists to ‘fetishise’ language – turning it into something fixed. Such fundamentalists, despite using the langauge of faith, actually lack faith; they just have certainties which deny the space for anything else.
This probably sounds a bit disconnected. However, these are just slices from a longer argument that I don’t have time to reproduce here. However, the video can be watched on the Guardian website shortly. The next one is a discussion between Giles Fraser and John Gray and it takes place on 7 March.