I have at last finished Barry Jones’ memoir, A Thinking Reed. In this blog, I want to write about the chapter in which Jones describes the religious convictions which have guided his life. I’ve chosen the title ‘Faith in Politics’ specifically because it was the title of an essay by Kevin Rudd, current leader of the Australian Labor Party, in which Jones served. Rudd is running for Prime Minister in an election which we all hope will be very very soon.
Jones says the chapter on his beliefs was the most difficult to write. He describes himself variously as a fellow-traveller with Christians, as one committed as a follower of Jesus, and yet skeptical of a number of core Christian doctrines. On the other hand, he evinces a deep spirituality and sensitivity to the numinous. He rejects many of the classical alternatives to religion, such as materialism, but also rejects the kind of ‘certainty’ which some people think is ‘faith’.
I would call Jones a man of deep faith. But his faith, like that of many intelligent and artistically sensitive people, finds little room for the church. This is the contemporary tragedy of the church.
Jones begins his reflection with the statement: ‘I have serious difficulty with the Apostles’ Creed, because it raises too many unanswerable questions.’ (p418)
This statement I find perplexing. Jones is not afraid of unanswerable questions. The difficulty must sit with the ‘too many’, and perhaps with the use to which the Creed is put—that is, perhaps his difficulty is that this statement is presented as if it is definitive of Christian orthodoxy, whereas he finds it unable to serve this purpose.
I am reminded here of the Scottish theologian Geddes Macgregor, who wrote in his lovely book Christian Doubt that worship services should always allow a period of silence after the recital of the Creed, so that we can all un-say what we have just said. In this paradoxical suggestion, Macgregor implies that we both need such statements and we need to recognize their inadequacy. Faith, for him (and for me) requires both belief and doubt.
As we have already noted, Jones is able to identify many experiences of the numinous. Again he refers to the visceral effect of such encounters. ‘This sense, which bursts beyond rationality, often explodes in contact with creativity, music, literature, painting, sculpture—but also with landscape, nature and the night sky.’
Jones goes on the identify some of the theologians who have shaped his understanding. Albert Schweitzer was an early hero. He then discusses the work of Geza Vermes, whose books have helped us appreciation much more profoundly the Jewish identity of Jesus and its significance for Christian theology.
When discussing the history of the church, in broad strokes, but not without accuracy, Jones speaks of the influence of Constantine, making Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. Christianity turned from ‘a pacifist and subversive creed into an imperial ideology and a religion of violence.’
Much more follows, but it is clear that for Jones it is the history of Christian oppression and the loss of the moral integrity of Jesus, with his welcoming of the poor and his commitment to an alternative ethic, which is most distressing. Jones appears to have little to say for the worship and communal life of the local churches. He does not denigrate them. He appreciates much that the churches have contributed, in social service and in contribution to political debate at times. But his vision reaches for social justice, for a communal life much more than a religious community. He does not see local church community as the fulfilment of his vision of life with God, nor the way of Jesus.
Is he right or wrong? Is it that simple?
In the end, I think he is substantially right, but I think too that his vision of life and ethics is also highly individualized, and somewhat solitary. This wonderfully intelligent man is able to find peace and solace in fairly solitary pursuits, listening to music, visiting galleries, contemplating ideas. Most other humans cannot find fulfilment in these ways. They need people and activities, to bring them to any sense of depth and meaning. Perhaps we should be more like Jones, and it is our lack of intellectual effort or of moral engagement which is expressed here. I have known many colleagues who have thought this. It is true, Australians are in many ways a ‘shallow’ people. But I doubt that we can all, ever, be like Jones, and he certainly does not for one minute urge that we should.
So what I conclude is that there is more than enough room for a range of intellectual and less intellectual approaches to values, spirituality and community. What would trouble me is if any one approach defined itself as the only appropriate, valid, or ‘Christian’ approach.
Jones’ memoir concludes with his deeply perplexed account of the state of Australian politics—about which I too have written much. Like him, I have despaired of any change from our utter fixation with ‘the economy’ as the measure of all things. But there just might be a chance that things will change. Bring on the election! Bring on some faith in politics!
I finished the book thinking just what a wonderful man Barry Jones is. I feel so graced to have read his work and to have been part of the community in which he has lived and served.