Our story begins in exile: ‘Baptist social theology’ and the EU referendum

One of the books I have recently been reading with interest and profit is Anglican Social Theology (ed. Malcolm Brown) (London: Church House Publishing, 2014). Apart from the intrinsic interest in tracing significant contributions to political theology that happened to come from within the Church of England, I was struck by the contributors’ awareness that the project, or projects, they were tracing were distinctively ‘Anglican’. As Brown puts it in an early prospectus: We have chosen to speak of an Anglican social theology with a deliberate intention of echoing the concept of Catholic social teaching because we recognise that the latter is much better known as a theological school or tradition that informs practice. Our contention … is that a distinctively Anglican tradition of social engagement can be discerned through most of the twentieth century… (p. 2) I find this interesting because I have long had a minor interest in the extent to which different Christian traditions in fact propose different practices in various areas—and of course a sustained interest in the distinctively Baptist contributions that may be available. What, I have begun to wonder, would a ‘Baptist social theology’ look like? We are, after all, the largest protestant tradition in the world, and have had our fair share of social reformers whose programmes were in some way shaped by their faith—a list headed, but far from exhausted, by Martin Luther King. At the same time I have been following what Christian contributions to the debate over the EU referendum I have been able to find. Most are Anglican, whether for Remain (Michael Sadgrove, ex Dean of Durham, founded Christians for Europe), Brexit (Christians for Britain is run by Giles Fraser and Adrian Hilton), or thoughtfully neutral (Andrew Goddard‘s personal contribution, or the excellent and thoughtful Reimagining Europe blog, which is billed as a joint project between the Church of England and the Church of Scotland, but a glance down the contributors list suggests the balance is heavily tilted south of the border). Is there, I have wondered, a specifically Baptist approach to the EU referendum, and to the wider questions it crystallises? Political matters are generally questions of practical wisdom, and so do not admit of definitive theological answers. We might argue theologically that the most vulnerable in our society must be protected, but theology cannot then guide us to the best way to offer such protection. A robust doctrine of original sin will warn us that greed and fraud will be endemic under any tax regime, but it will not then help us to construct a regime that protects effectively and efficiently against these problems. I am not, then, looking for an argument that will insist that all Baptists should vote one way; there are issues where this might be the case (a narrow proposal to limit religious liberty, for example), but it seems clear enough that the EU will not be one of them. Rather, I want to suggest that Baptists, if they are faithfully Baptist, will argue and evaluate differently. Things will matter to us that others will be careless of; things that are decisive for others will be unimportant to us. Although not decisive, such considerations might well make us more likely to lean one way, so that Baptists might split 70-30 when society is 50-50. In other cases we will split the same as others, but for very different reasons. An obvious example of this is the sermon many of us preach in the run up to each general election. The messaging from every party is often enough ‘you will be richer if you vote for us’; we preach that Christians should not vote selfishly, to enrich themselves, but for other reasons (which vary: for some it will be, pick the pro-life candidate, regardless of party; for others issues of justice and ‘good news to the poor’ will loom largest; for others again it might simply be the personal morality or faith of a candidate). I want to suggest that one of the main themes of the EU referendum is a matter Baptists should have a distinctive view on. The matter is national sovereignty; and at the heart of our Baptist distinctiveness is, I suggest, the historical fact encapsulated in my title: ‘our story begins in exile’. The British Baptist movement began in 1609 when, as John Robinson reports, ‘Mr Smith [sic] baptized first himself and next Mr Helwys and so the rest.’ Smyth and Helwys were the officers of an illegal separatist congregation that had been meeting in Gainsborough, north of Lincoln, but like many others they fled Anglican persecution and by 1609 were resident, with much...

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On sensory metaphors for revelation

An interesting, but inconclusive, dialogue is sporadically happening between two of America’s most interesting theologians, Robert W. Jenson and Katherine Sonderegger. As is well known, Jenson proposes that theology has been too focused on visual metaphors, which (he claims) allow a detachment from the object observed. He proposes instead that ‘faith comes by hearing’ and so we should describe our engagement with the divine in auditory, not visual, terms. Sonderegger, particularly in the recent first volume of her systematics, pushes back at this, arguing that visual metaphors are appropriate, and need not be about detachment, instead creating space for an appropriately affective knowledge. At root this debate is about the primary sensory metaphor for revelation: is it visual or auditory, and how does that decision shape our account of knowing God, and so our developed accounts of all things? This is clearly an absolutely fundamental question for theology. I have followed the Jenson-Sonderegger debate with great interest, but I find it ultimately inconclusive: neither visual nor auditory metaphors seem adequate to do the necessary work here, of giving a convincing account of theological knowledge in a profoundly sceptical late-modern context. I have come to suspect, however, that this is one of those places where recent advances in human knowledge help us to hear themes from the Scriptures that we have previously missed or neglected. Some readers will know of the pioneering work of the French neuroscientist P. D’Avril, who has demonstrated beyond doubt that our sense of smell is extraordinarily powerfully linked to our emotions. If our theological quest is for an appropriately affective epistemology, we might wonder whether there is any way of moving away from both sight and hearing, and instead moving toward smell? As soon as we ask this, of course, a welter of Biblical images come to mind. Prayers ascending ‘like incense’; the redeemed as ‘the aroma of Christ’; … Olfactory metaphors for knowing are remarkably common in the Psalms, but are also peculiarly Pauline. More, when we consider the reconceptualisations of the logic of Pauline theology proposed by the new apocalyptic readings, we see, again and again, that appeals to the sense of smell occur at almost every decisive moment in Paul’s various arguments (the repetition of ‘fragrance’ three times over in 2Cor. 2:14-16 is only the most obvious example of this, but see a recent paper by Dr Rick Rolling for a much fuller demonstration). Of course, this collision of recent science and Biblical emphasis may be merely coincidental, but it surely deserves investigation. What doctrinal insights might we uncover if we moved fundamental theology away from visual or auditory metaphors into a new olfactory mode? I am convinced that we will find here an exciting new departure for fundamental theology. Only when we learn to savour the beautiful fragrance of Jesus will our intellectual and emotional responses find proper unity and balance! I am pleased to say that I have received some modest funding to investigate this further, and can announce some available research grants into olfactory theology. Details are available...

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