Editorial by Anthony Woollard
from Signs of the Times No. 39 - Oct 2010

This edition includes reports of the Annual Conference and of our presence at the Greenbelt Festival as well as a regional conference in the north-west.

But I am glad also to include two articles, by Mary Taylor and Graham Hellier, which address the theme of literalism and symbolism; the first in the Creation story and the second in the Eucharist. I would love to publish more articles of this sort from members - and readers' responses, for we thrive on controversy.

I found no difficulty in generally agreeing with Mary's article, but had more problem with Graham's. Perhaps I will not be alone in this. That may say more about the reader than about the articles. But we ought to listen to our anxieties and see what we can learn from them.

Both articles remind us that literalism is not what our faith is about.  The Creation story is not science; there are other approaches to the concept of "creation" which must not be dismissed simply because they conflict with a literal reading of Genesis. The bread and wine of the Eucharist are not literally flesh and blood; they are comprised of the chemical compounds which make up bread and wine. That much would surely be common ground amongst all our readers. 

But there is a key difference between the two articles. For Mary, there may be important senses in which the Creation story is "true" - though at a level different from the scientific. Art, and religion, and indeed "fairy stories" (see the famous essay by the admittedly anti-modernist Tolkien on that subject), can embody truths of which science, for all its glories of human achievement and its accurate and usable definitions and descriptions of reality, knows little or nothing. For Graham, on the other hand, traditional language about the Eucharist seems to be simply misleading, divisive and offputting to the enquirer. Maybe sometimes so, but is there more to it than that?

Recent editions of this newsletter have had a good deal to say about the word 'Modern' in our name. The debate is confused by the development of postmodern philosophy, which is held by some to open up a greater diversity of possible meanings in being than the constraints of modernism. At its extreme, in its rejection of 'grand narratives' (including the grand narrative of the modernist project), it is open to a relativism in which even the certainties of science dissolve in fluidity, and any one account of reality is as good or as bad as any other. That leaves all of us in an uneasy place, and I can understand those who want to insist on the modernist narrative as providing at least some security and coherence. But that narrative is intensely scientific and pragmatic. It has little place for symbolism, unless you count the self-referential symbolism of so much modern art and architecture. And it has even less for the premodern symbolism which figures so largely, and perhaps inevitably, in Christian tradition. For 'modern man (sic)', language about a six-day creation with gardens and serpents is not just non-scientific and non-historical but may seem decidedly alien and unhelpful to living in today's world. Language about Body and Blood, about Sacrifice and Real Presence, may if anything seem even more so.

On the cusp of the modern and the postmodern stands existentialism, a philosophy whose influence extends far beyond those who can spell it. The cry of the existentialists is: 'Subjectivity is truth'. The only reality is what I feel and know and determine here and now.  Is this actually Good News? I was not convinced when I first encountered existentialism in my teens, and I am not convinced now. The Gospel can be embodied in some degree in any human world-view (and existentialism does have its liberating dimensions), but I do not believe that the human longing for objectivity, for some fixed point amongst the flux, is wholly illegitimate or that any genuine Good News can ignore it. Dare one use the term "incarnational" without arousing a hornets' nest?

Graham argues:

'If the presence of Christ is shrunken to these tangible forms... then we can only cling to such remnants of faith as we have left'.

But, even if we concede the idea of a "shrunken" presence - which many would not - is not "clinging to the remnants" a pretty apt description of the faith of most of us? The whole Christian story, in its various versions, may be only one grand narrative amongst many, and Mary is right that it cannot and should not be taught as the one true interpretation of reality. The focal and determinative symbolic re-enactment, in the Eucharist, of the heart of that story, is equally not to be taken as some kind of Absolute Reality, and (despite undoubted temptations) no reputable theologian of any Christian communion would derive such implications from the traditional language that is used about it.  But, for me at least, those words "focal and determinative" describe the objectivity - not idolatry - to be found in these very physical things and this very physical act, in which faith can indeed be properly focused, enabling us in the flux to hang on by our fingernails. And it just may be that some of the traditional language is a key part of that, and that we need to be careful to hold onto the baby as we throw out the bathwater.

Space prohibits me from analysing in more detail Graham's arguments, which, I believe, are often right in what they affirm, that the reality which we call God must be greater than any ritual or symbol, yet wrong in what they deny. But I would just say this. If "modern man" has lost an appreciation of the deeper creative and symbolic dimensions of reality of which Mary writes, and hence can only see a meaningless pagan ritual with bread and wine, maybe that is his serious loss, and maybe we are in default if we fail to help him make good that loss.

Our Annual Conference - which is well summarised below by first-timer Alan Wolfe and old-timer David Storey, and whose papers should appear in a future edition of our companion journal Modern Believing - was also relevant to the debate about symbolism, literalism and idolatry, for all these issues arise in our attitude to money. The classic paradigm of a sacramental symbol is, of course, the banknote: chemically made up of paper and ink, intrinsically ("literally") worth a penny at most, yet a powerful medium of exchange because it is accepted as such. We know, only too well, that the value of money depends on that acceptance, that confidence, and that recent events have called it into question. We know too that money, whether in the form of a £20 note or of a credit default swap, can become an idol. But here is a curious thing. Many people may reject the power and meaning of the Christian story and the Christian sacraments, and all too often the Church is at fault in failing to express that power and that meaning.  But I have never known anyone (unless they suspected forgery) reject a £20 note.

Greenbelt, too, is a place where symbolism has power, even if some of it is less traditional than that of the old Christian language. This edition includes songs sung by one of our members as part of our presentation at that festival.  Not scientific, not pragmatic, but poetic and symbolic and allusive, containing words and phrases which might well be "literally" nonsense in some cases yet point beyond themselves as a sacrament does. And Greenbelt has captured the imagination of many whom traditional Church - actually caught up more than it realises in narrow modernism (as Karen Armstrong has demonstrated) - leaves rather cold.

Our membership includes some like myself for whom the old symbols are infinitely (not in a literal sense of course) precious, and others who are deeply moved to be critical of them - a dialectic which Tillich famously described as "Catholic substance and Protestant principle". Others again seek to build new symbolism on the old, as at  Greenbelt. And there are many who come into two or even all three of these categories.

It takes all sorts to make a world, and a Church, and (what we must now learn to call) Modern Church.

Anthony Woollard is editor of Signs of the Times. He taught Theology at William Temple College  before entering the Civil Service where he spent most of his career in the the Department of Education.