by Helen Burnett
from Signs of the Times No. 58 - Jul 2015
In a recent talk given to The National Churches Trust, Michael Palin referred to himself as 'agnostic with doubts', he goes on to describe his affection for the Church of England and in particular her buildings.
In this, Palin is representative of the congregation of the edges that Brian Mountford sets out to explore in this accessible and insightful book.
Mountford qualifies his subject by adding the subtitle 'Belonging without Believing' but the popularisation of the term 'Christian Atheist' he attributes to author Philip Pullman whose voice pervades the discussion which follows.
Through a series of conversations and an easy style as if thinking out loud Mountford sets out to explore why it is that so many remain within the church fold whilst unable to accept her doctrines or sustain a belief in God. Here is a group of people who will forgive much for the cultural and moral heritage of the church. Many of them crave positive engagement with the church and welcome the author's enquiries. Not surprisingly, the nature of God is one area where he exposes significant divergence of opinion as to how, why, or even if we should define God.
For his more formal interviews he selected a disparate group of twelve generous, interested friends of the church who were keen to engage with him and the idea of Christian Atheism rather than to simply act as harbingers of 'corrosive doubt.' These thinkers are a gift to Christians who perhaps fall foul of an 'age that lusts for certainty'. They can, he suggests become allies for those interested in an open theological discussion which can allow for ambiguity. Mountford carefully avoids those who might perceive his questions as an invitation to the sort of confrontation often provoked by militant atheism.
In fact one of the recurring and encouraging themes of the book is that 'doubt reinvigorates the question that keeps the mystery alive'.
There is much in the book that will be familiar territory to Modern Church members but is none the less pertinent for those who are keen to continue to engage with the secular world and explore opinion outside the narrow confines of theology or institution.
This book was published before the rise of secular Sunday Assemblies but it does catch the wave of Canadian Pastor, Gretta Vosper. Vosper was a guest of the Sea of Faith and PCN in the UK last autumn and lectured as an exponent of a particular form of Christian Atheism. Vosper places great emphasis on deconstructing God whereas Mountford is more open to both a realist and non-realist approach. His discussions focus on the ethical inheritance of Christianity and the aesthetic appeal of so much in Christian culture which holds the Palins, Pullmans and many more by a loose thread to the church.
In his conversations Mountford repeatedly returns to the power and purpose of metaphor and revelation through ambiguity. He cites Bonhoeffer's departure from metaphysics and the work of Paul Tillich, numerous poets and returns finally to John Bunyan with Christian's famous light at the wicket gate moment when, pushed to see the light, he responds 'I think I do'.
The penultimate chapter 'God: noun or verb, the answer or the question?' explores the interface between language, metaphor, action and materialism in attempting to understand God. In returning to the Old Testament God 'I am' he uncovers a fertile furrow which places the challenge clearly at the intersection between language and the nature of being and which I sincerely hope he will expand elsewhere.
The book approaches a vast topic with bravura and finds a way in through personal relationship and a willingness to listen. The author's access to a range of people who find themselves drawn to aspects of Christianity but uncomfortable with a supernatural God provides a tip of the iceberg approach leaving one wondering how vast this disenfranchised group is. I fear they are a dying breed in an increasingly secular culture. His is a select group from a privileged university city full of thriving chapels and churches with a wealth of high quality music, preaching, architecture and art. Outside the Oxford bubble things may be very different but this does not negate the book's worth. As a profound attempt to address the place of Christianity in a postmodern context it successfully touches upon issues which a progressive church ignores at its peril.