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Agnostic and religious ways of seeing the world


Archbishop Richard HollowayThe Atheist Convention promises to become a good institution. Although it inspires some polemic, it also invites deeper reflection on the different ways in which people account for the world. Leaving Alexandria, the recent autobiography of a former Anglican Archbishop of Edinburgh, more lately a media figure and agnostic, is exemplary in this respect.

Richard Holloway's life took him from the poor Clydeside village of Alexandria into an Anglican religious community, to ordination as an Anglican priest, to ministry in South Africa, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Boston, to consecration as Archbishop of Edinburgh and finally to resignation from his position, Church and Christian faith.

This is an honest and self-critical book that invites the reader to respond with the same honesty.

When he was 14, Holloway went from home to a rural school and seminary for impoverished boys who wished to become Anglican clergy. An Anglo-Catholic community, whose members were destined for the foreign missions, staffed the school. Its ethos was idealistic. Its ritual and symbolic structure were rich.

Holloway was attracted to these aspects of the life, but then had to deal with the tension he experienced between the idealism and beauty of the worship and his recognition of moral frailty.

He left at the end of his schooling, but joined the congregation after national service. His decision was made lightly: nothing seemed more worth doing. He lived with detachment, never unselfconscious, always observing himself living the part he played. In the hope of becoming fully involved and of belonging fully, he repeatedly sought out difficult fields of ministry. But he always felt himself an observer.

This sense of distance helped him to see the world through the eyes of others. He had a natural empathy for people who differed from him. In his writings he took seriously the perspective of religious unbelief.

It is not surprising then that Holloway privileged the concrete and personal needs of individuals over the general and principled arguments that buttress institutional stability. This priority often brought him into conflict within his church in areas such as marriage discipline, women's ordination and homosexuality.

When he was made a bishop and had to negotiate fierce conflicts in the Anglican communion and personal attack by opponents over these issues, his links with faith and the church were strained and broken.

The crisis led Holloway to recognise that he had not only entered but also now accepted the secular wisdom of his age. He came to the view that church doctrine and ethics, though often helpful, are a human creation, and that human life is adequately accounted for by scientific explanation.

This enabled him to accept his ordinary humanity, freeing him from the tyranny of perfection. As he minimised the claims of churches to truth and authority, he was no longer torn between the needs of persons and the demands of the institution.

He continues to wonder at the beauty of nature and of the human world, particularly through poetry.

Holloway's long journey through and from Alexandria is honestly and compellingly told. For those who, like me, share his taste for entering other views of the world, the tension he felt between a natural inclination to observe and the compensating attraction to gestures of total self-giving, and his instinctive preference for the concrete and personal over universal principles, the question he poses is not where he went wrong, but why we would not follow him. It is answered less by argument than by observation.

The key point of difference is not that we are more religious, more doctrinal and more church-centred than Holloway was. It lies in a quality of attention to all the particular relationships, commitments and actions which shape our engagement with the world.

We see all of these as illuminated by a God who always lies beyond the horizon of our lives. We do not experience God but we recognise traces of God's everywhere in our world. And we are drawn to wonder at and to respect the world that bears God's traces.

For Christians, too, what kind of a God lies behind the horizon and the implications for our lives of God's love for the world are seen in the life and death and rising of Jesus Christ.

All this needs much unpacking in conversation, of course. But in such a view of the world the observer who can enter many opposed views of the world has a place. So does the occasional leap of faith from which we ruthfully pick ourselves up. Our natural business is to contemplate the variety and wonder of a world that no single perspective can contain. Our home lies beyond the horizon.

We should also expect that both we and others will identify the God who lies beyond the horizon with the things and words, including church things, and will act inhumanely to control them.

From this perspective Alexandria is always for leaving because we are drawn companionably to a world that will always be ahead of us. 

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street. 

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Richard Holloway, atheism, Leaving Alexandria



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Existing comments

"Leaving Alexandria" is a book I will seek out. I can say in all honesty that I love my church community and long to be nowhere else. But I am also drawn to those with no interest as such in the church, and no particular feeling of connection to God. There's an ease of relating - the best way that I can describe it. But God's presence in my life is tangible to me, even in the darkest times, and I cannot walk away. I would feel like I was betraying myself. Simple (and complex) as that.

Pam | 20 April 2012  

I found this article particularly helpful, thanks for your continued thoughtful guidance.

Liz Hepburn | 20 April 2012  

The frank discussion over the life and attitudes of Richard Holloway is an example, perhaps an unwitting one, that there has been an advance from cast iron beliefs to the truth that in many cases we simply 'don't know'. But this has dangers. With the decline in the influence of religion the widespread acceptance of traditional 'rights and wrongs' has diminished. For example, greed has become almost a virtue and those who practice it have become accepted and honoured. It is now time for religious believers, atheists and 'don't knowers' to join together and promote the age-old truths of decent human behaviour to one another and to condemn the vices, even those of the rich and powerful.

Bob Corcoran | 20 April 2012  

Not an easy topic for a short comment - or even a very long one! - but allow me a couple of observations. Years ago when leprosy was prevalent in Papua-New Guinea I visited a leper (Hansenide) colony on the north coast to look at the treatment (medical and surgery) of lepers. I learnt that there were, at that time, seven such colonies in P-NG - all of them managed and staffed by Christian organisations - not one staffed by atheists, humanists or agmostics. I recollected this during the recent Atheist Convention. Of course moral humanists have ethical standards of the highest order but - by their works you shall know them. Doubt and despair are experienced by all - theists, atheists, mystics (witness John of the Cross) but many believe it is better to hang in there. Notwithstanding a hierarchy too often inadequate the visible unity of the Christian tradition is worthwhile and needs a physical presence. Peter and his successors have been, to say the least, somewhat fallible but the mystical, real body of believers is far greater than they - and if you walk away, what have you got?

John Nicholson | 20 April 2012  

A thoughtful and well written piece. Thanks, Andrew. I would like to note that agnosticism does not necessarily mean non-belief in God. For more information see: http://i.imgur.com/TBTwk.png

Tim Graham | 20 April 2012  

Oh the mystery Oh the pain perhaps our God should try again

john frawley | 20 April 2012  

Richard Holloway's view, in my opinion, is right in "that church doctrine and ethics, though often helpful, are a human creation," but wrong in "that human life is adequately accounted for by scientific explanation." Recent biblical studies reveal that the Gospels were an attempt by greek-speaking converts of Paul to explain and blend with their culture, the inspirational practices of "The Way" as described in Acts 2:46. The "Way" attracted millions of followers and lasted for hundreds of years. The Gospels thus are a human creation. Part of the inspiration behind them were the 2 Great Commandments to which "The Way" gave practical expression. "Scientific explanation" of human life is like saying that Beethoven's Violin Concerto is just a human production of vibrations of dead wood and catgut. It is that, but in another dimension it is sublime beauty of tunes and harmonies capable of raising the spirits of disposed listeners to almost ecstatic heights. It is the Spirit that gives Life.

Robert Liddy | 20 April 2012  

This article is fine up until we reach this point, "The key point of difference is not that we are more religious, more doctrinal and more church-centred than Holloway was", whereupon it all fell apart. What Holloway understands very well is that religion is a con, merely a human construct put to use by assaulting the mind and distorting human potential. Try another one by a man who speny yaers as a mumbling obedient Buddhist, who came to similar conclusions as the good Bishop did, "Confession of a Buddhist Atheist' by Stephen Batchelor.

janice wallace | 21 April 2012  

Tim Graham:- "agnosticism does not necessarily mean non-belief in God." Neither does "Atheism", which really means rejection of 'Theism', or "the way God is presented by any particular group of 'Believers'." All such 'presentations' are human constructions and as such are limitations or distortions of God. God cannot be contained or explained in human words or images. If our purpose in life involves a relationship with God, it is impossible to live without some expression of that relationship. I believe that the recently developed attitude of so-called Atheists of denying any existence of God is product of their frustration in finding no Theistic formulation without flaws, and not a rejection Goodness and Truth, which is about as close as we can get to 'defining' the "Indefinable".

Robert Liddy | 22 April 2012  

Willia Penn wrote: death is only an horizon, and an horizon is only limit of our sight. God lies beyond the horizon of our lives only in the sense that for most of us He is beyond our sensory experience. But through the gift of faith we can experience God in the sense that we believe through the Life, Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ that the Holy Spirit operates in this world. Faith is the great mystery for me. Why do some people have it? Why do some people appear never to get it? Why do some people appear to have got it and then "lost" it? Why do some have it but appear to act against it? While others are driven to acts of self-sacrificing service and humility that defy human expectations? The more I travel in the barque of Peter towards the horizon I get the impression there are many other vessels toiling through the waves and mist in the same direction. May we all arrive safely.

Joe | 22 April 2012  

This is why I like Eureka - always food for thought and nourishment of our human questions.I would be interested in the journey of the ex-archbishop and when he felt a fraud in the 'job' he did and how long it took to take the leap of faith into honesty. I wish so many other 'Religious' could have left their comfort zone. You don't have to believe in God/Goddess/Godhead to feel connected, communion with Life - as far as I am concerned it's all in the chemistry of our brains. Taking lithium as a mood stabiliser has brought me to a whole new awareness of my God Delusion. Each to his/her own. And thanks to these Eureka moments!

Julie McNeill | 22 April 2012  

Richard Holloway has certainly been on an interesting life journey. I think, in his attempt to try to make it all come together and ultimately mean something, he is like so many really intelligent men and women in an age where everything seems to be dysfunctional and falling apart. Surprisingly, this was often the starting point for many of Christianity's great saints and mystics. St John of the Cross, St Francis of Assisi and St Ignatius of Loyola would all, at some stage, have been in a similar predicament. Janice Wallace mentions Stephen Batchelor, formerly a Tibetan Buddhist monk, as someone who came from a "religious" understanding of truth to a seeming "secular" understanding of it.

I am not sure that there is a clear demarcation line between "faith" and "unbelief". My gut feeling is that many atheists, agnostics and freelance humanists may be a lot closer to the truth than many reflex-action Christians who have never suffered the agonies of it not quite fitting together. Where will Richard Holloway go from here? I think Andrew is quite right to accept his stance and wish him well. Andrew's reaction may not be what many would wish but I think it is deeply mature and in no contradiction to either his faith nor his priestly vocation.

Edward F | 12 May 2012  

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