Record of meeting, 20 May 2009

We met on 20 May at David Lambourn’s house. Present were David Belcher, John Challenor, Sara Clethero, Paul Graham, George Gregg, John Howard, David Lambourn and Stephen Williams.

Stephen Williams referred to informal discussions he’d had since the last meeting about future arrangements for the group and it was agreed that we should return to this at a meeting in the early autumn. We are a larger group than we used to be and it is timely that we should take stock of the frequency and content of our meetings, the way we go about things and our relationship with the national Sea of Faith network. Although I didn’t mention this at the time, I would also like to put on the table the role of group convenor. (I have been doing the job for five years and it may be appropriate to pass the role on to someone else with different ideas; I’m also not sure that it’s a good principle to combine the role with being a SoF trustee as I am since becoming treasurer last year).

David Belcher reported on progress on the regional conference now fixed for September 12 with the provisional title “Faiths and Beliefs”. We talked around it for a bit, getting our heads round the topic and raising some points which David will feed back, but it looks good. The Oxford group are in the lead role but we are cosponsors (together with Banbury and Southampton) and if people from this area are to hear about it, it will probably be down to us. We should have more details by the time of our next meeting.

David Belcher then introduced the main topic of the evening, a discussion based on his reading of David Boulton’s recent book Who on Earth was Jesus? It is a long book with the greater part taken up with a review of all the efforts to date to pin down the historical Jesus. It’s done very thoroughly and would be very useful for anyone wanting a readable summary of the material but we focussed on the later chapters where David Boulton seems to conclude that there are no conclusions. Everyone has preconceptions of Jesus and can find what they’re looking for. We can accept the probability of a few key facts about Jesus but beyond that there are so many gaps in the record and there have been so many vested interests eager to fill them that it is better to recognise that we can be certain of nothing.

We thought the quest for certainty about Jesus, even from the most academically respectable, had parallels with fundamentalism. It involves tidying up the texts to present a coherent picture, but if we think the Jesus story worth spending time on at all then we must be prepared to live with its ambiguities and paradoxes. It’s down to us to make what we can of it. As good SoF people we see Jesus as a human creation!

This led on to a broader discussion of Truth with the suggestion that it has become an idol. There are technological truths which we rely on for the conduct of our everyday lives but sometimes the pursuit of truth seems to be about fixing ideas which should be kept open. At its best science is about establishing truth by eliminating what is false and is therefore always open-ended (we should generally have a clearer idea of what is false than of what is true). What we think we know is always provisional (a concrete example being aspirin which we continue to use even though we now have a completely different understanding of how it works).

Scepticism is a virtue, prompting the question of how it is to be fostered. It is often seen as an adult quality but children are moving towards adulthood from the time they are born and should be helped to develop habits of scepticism. More often the assumption is that children require certainties, something well demonstrated in the practice of churches. The church infantilises even its adult adherents so that the questioning common to theological students is so rarely shared with the laity.

We have already set the date of our next meeting Wednesday 8 July 2009 at David Lambourn’s house, 28 Frederick Road, Edgbaston. We agreed to explore our understanding of “Faiths and Beliefs” in anticipation of the September regional event. The meeting after that will be on Wednesday 19 August.