Monday, 12 January 2009
On 26 September I wrote I am therefore going through one of my periodic attempts to see whether a sustainable liberal Christian faith can actually be reconstructed.
Since then, I have had a curious encounter with a book: Ludemann's The Great Deception. This seeks to reanalyse most of the reported sayings of Jesus as doctrinally-loaded interpolations by the early Christian church, which owed its origin chiefly to Paul. I had myself been toying with the idea that one or two sayings of Jesus might have originated in charismatically inspired "words" given to early Christian congregations, which were incorporated into the oral tradition and then "read back" into the Gospels. Despite my openness to the idea, I found Ludemann's arguments poorly and incompletely made; but curiously, the book has nevertheless made an irrational impression. To myself, I have ascribed my tenacity in retaining a grip on Christianity partly to personal loyalty to the figure of Jesus Christ. As that figure becomes historically deconstructed, even by such unsatisfactory arguments as Ludemann's, that loyalty is showing a tendency to dissipate, leaving me with little more than an emotional attachment to certain expressions of spirituality in art, music, poetry, and liturgy.
I now find myself entering the New Year as rather more of an agnostic than before. I have long described myself as a "Christian agnostic", paying lip service to the notion of "religion as human construct", though applying it mainly to the developed doctrines of institutonal Christianity, not to the core assumptions of theism. I have (I now realize) retained a substratum of more or less traditional theistic assumptions. These seem to have departed, at least for the moment, with what feels like rather dramatic suddenness.
It is not the first time that I have, as it were, woken up one morning to discover that I am an atheist. I cannot say that I find it liberating in the least. In the past, I have viewed the "Sea of Faith" approach to Christianity from the mainstream liberal perspective, as an extreme position to which I felt I might ultimately be drawn. I now find myself looking at it from the other side, wondering what it is about the human religious exercise that makes it worth engaging in. Last time I was an atheist, I gently lapsed back into faith as the social and cultural matrix of Christian observance and interest continued to sustain me. This time, under pressure of family life, I don't know where I will find the time or the energy for the effort of spiritual reconstruction.
When, at a talk at Greenbelt 2007, that verse from the Gospel struck a chord with me ("Launch out into the deep" Luke 5:4), I wasn't really expecting the water to be quite as cold and deep as this.