Wallace et al - Time and Tide

  (22 February 09)

Time and Tide

A review by John Maindonald of the UK SoF publication
Time and Tide: Sea of Faith Beyond the Millennium (ed. Wallace, T.,
Fisher, P., Fisher, P., Elliott, M. and Hart, D. 2001).

(Reviewed 2002)

The essays in this book reflect on the history of Sea of Faith, on its religious and philosophical outlook, and on its future. Although all write from a non-dogmatic and “human-oriented” framework, the contributors reflect diverse opinions and agendas. These essays present, more overtly than other Sea of Faith publications, a movement that has broad humanistic, humanitarian and philosophical sympathies. Several authors make the customary nod to non-realism. But we have, also, an overtly realist account of the “ingeniously ordered universe” from Paul Davies. Karen Armstrong finds support for the rejection of literalism in the use of religious language, not from non-realism but from the classical Christian theological tradition. Social action and responsibility is a strong theme in several essays.


The choice contributions in Time and Tide are, for me, the essays by Richard Holloway and Karen Armstrong. Richard Holloway is whimsical and treads lightly, but has serious points to make. His title – “Mixed Bathing in the Sea of Faith” – celebrates the diversity of the human search for meaning. He starts with a question: “What is life and how are we to live it?” Stories of meaning are found everywhere. “One recipe for a happy life is to take one of them and make it our story, internalise it and live by it.” In the process of understanding ourselves, the story that we start with will inevitably be revised, reinterpreted, or perhaps even discarded. There is no escaping the point that these stories come in us and through us, casting doubt on the claim that one’s own stories come with the authority of revelation. “The beauty of the Sea of Faith approach is that it celebrates the diversity of the meanings we devise for ourselves in our search for understanding.”


Karen Armstrong treads lightly, but with none of Richard Holloway’s whimsy. She asks what role God, and religion, may have in our future. The revival of interest in religion that started in the 1970s should not perhaps be a surprise – religion is natural to human beings. Like art, it may be the source of ecstatic experience that gives us momentarily the experience of “contact with the deeper currents of existence”. She looks within the great religious traditions for insight on what, for the future, may the source of this ecstatic experience. “When we speak of God, . . . we are at the end of what thoughts and words can do.” It is in the darkness of doubt and wonder that we wait for God. While we wait we do well to practice compassion, for it is above all compassion that is creative of a sense of God. Karen Armstrong reminds us that God came to Abraham, not in answers to his questions and doubts, but in the welcoming and entertaining of three strangers, one of whom turned out to be Abraham’s God. “First we live compassionately, and only then will we glimpse the sacredness that gives meaning to our lives.” She argues that the boundaries between what passes for atheism and the experience of God are more blurred than most of us readily acknowledge. It is great theology, albeit within a sceptical and humanistic framework. There is surely the making here of a full-length book, or of several books, to which I look forward.


Strong moral social justice concerns emerge both in both the essays that I have just mentioned. Patti Whaley and Lloyd Geering explore specific areas of moral concern. Patti Whaley identifies three areas of potential common interest with the human rights movement:  establishing the legitimacy of human rights concerns, the defence of religious freedom, and a better balancing between religious values and human rights values. It is an important and substantial contribution, which I hope Sea of Faith as a whole will take seriously. Lloyd Geering draws attention to the environmental challenge that faces us, placing in doubt our future as a species – surely now the ultimate concern.


Inter-religious dialogue, another issue that Karen Armstrong canvasses, is a strong theme through these essays. Several essays discuss the ongoing dialogue between Sea of Faith priests and others in the Church as England. Does this count, I wonder a little mischievously, as inter-religious dialogue? At all events, I propose to make it my starting point. Stephen Mitchell comments on the ongoing controversy, in the media and in the Anglican church, that Anglican Sea of Faith priests have attracted. Michael Elliott reflects on a recent incident – an Episcopal call to “keep doubt out of the pulpit” – that is in stark contrast to the free, open and supportive environment that Sea of Faith seeks to offer.


There is dialogue, also, with non-Christian traditions. Dan Cohn-Sherbok writes as a Jewish rabbi on the “Jewish island of disbelief”. Surprisingly to most Gentiles, the American Jewish community has within it two movements – 'Reconstructionist' and 'Humanistic' Judaism – that reject belief in a supernatural deity. Orthodox and non-Orthodox traditions accept both these groups as part of mainstream Judaism. There is a reconstructionist rabbinical college. The reconstructionists have been active in the adaptation of liturgical material to accord better with reconstructionist ideology. Robert Ashby writes as a prominent British humanist. He suggests that both Sea of Faith and British humanists have “dwelt too long on the theoretical, … reliving the battles of the past". He speculates on ways in which both movements might move ahead into the future.


Philip Knight, in an essay that is a tough read, defends philosophical claims of a broadly non-realist kind, though he avoids the term “non-realism” and disavows the more extreme claims of some non-realists. He claims to offer a philosophical basis for religious dialogue. Perhaps, but surely the practical concern is to get dialogue, on whatever basis the various parties will accept, between those who hold a more exclusive view of truth than the one that Philip expounds. A weakness of this exposition of an all-embracing philosophical perspective is its inability to distinguish those things in which we can have great confidence from those things that are highly uncertain. The essay highlights, for me, the deep philosophical waters into which the espousal of philosophical non-realism or its close kin must inevitably lead.


Stephen Mitchell’s introduction to the volume, after reflecting on the history of the UK movement, goes on to set out a “non-realist” strategy that “offers the hope of bringing about the coalition between believers and non-believers that Hans Küng argues is necessary for the creation of a world ethic”. I find the argument mystifying. The defence of one or other version of non-realism has been of particular importance to Anglican clerical members of the Sea of Faith, doubtless as a way to reconcile advanced theological views with the credal demands of the church. This is not an adequate reason for imposing the intellectual burden of non-realism on Sea of Faith as a whole. I welcome the unwillingness to be so burdened that emerges in several of the other essays.


Richard Holloway speaks of mixed bathing. I’d like to see other elements yet in the mixture. There is no Muslim voice – which seems a serious omission now that we are in the shadow of the tragic events of September 11th and of Bush’s “war against terrorism”. We too readily forget, if we ever knew, the huge contribution that a remarkably enlightened medieval Islamic civilisation made to the emergence of European learning. There is none of this history, and not much of any history. Why is it that we know so little about this world that watched over the birth of our own civilisation? Likewise, there is scant discussion of the religious scriptures of any religious tradition, Christian or other. If the stories by which we live are as important as Richard Holloway suggests, surely these are important omissions.


Finally, what of the future? There is attention to the social and humanitarian dimensions of the 21st century world that lies before us. Paul Davies describes the marvellous world of modern physics. But there is nothing about science-based technology, its potential to bring dramatic change to our lives, or new the moral challenges that it presents. The use of the new biological knowledge that threatens to change our lives beyond recognition is surely, together with present threats to the global environment, the great new religious challenge of our time. Omissions or not, it will be clear that this book, in its 110 short pages, has set my mind ranging over a wide canvas!


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