John Austin Baker’s The Foolishness of God

After posting yesterday’s blog I returned to reading John Austin Baker’s The Foolishness of God, written in 1970, bought by me in 1977 soon after arriving at Westcott House, and not read until now I confess. I’ve reached chapter 12, The Church and the World, and what I’ve read this morning both excites and angers and depresses me. John Austin Baker was bishop of Salisbury from 1982 to 1993. In his sermon at John’s memorial service on Friday 5 September 2013, Bishop Peter Selby said:

“In this celebration we shall certainly want to give thanks for the weight and wisdom of John’s major book, The Foolishness of God, surely destined to retain its status as a classic of Anglican writing in our time.  But it is also true that we are gathered to praise God for something far greater than intellect, scholarship and the gift of words.  In a conversation I had with Tim Darton, the publisher of The Foolishness of God, he said that part of its success as a book was that, ‘You keep thinking he’s about to throw in the towel, but he doesn’t.’  Such was the seriousness with which John took the reasons for doubt, and the book’s testimony to faith has the strength it has in no small measure for that reason.”

In the Church Times obituary, the essence of The Foolishness of God was described as “a claim, direct and personal and yet meticulously argued, that the only credible God was one for whom sacrificial love was the supreme value: a ringing statement of an incarnational and eucharistic faith.”

I want to quote what I have been reading this morning, written, remember, in 1970, forty-seven years ago.

“Perhaps the best news our day has to offer is the collapse of Judaistic Christianity under the pressures of history; for this affords Christians the best chance they have ever had to regain the perspective of the original Gospel. Because people are ceasing to believe in a Providence of simple, retributive justice, or in a magician-god who will wave his wand to give them whatever they ask; because they are beginning to value freedom and the responsibility which has to learn by making mistakes; because they are more acutely aware than ever before of being one small single family of Man in a universe too vast for their imagination to take in; because of all these things, what Jesus said and how he lived has more meaning, more relevance, not less. The world has not left Jesus behind; it is getting to the point where it can just see him, far ahead, blazing the trail. In the so-called ‘ages of faith’ it made endless false Christs in its own image. Now these images are for the most part broken and abandoned; only in the churches do men and women in any numbers still fall down and worship them.”

“The frightening urgency is that if Christians continue to misrepresent the information they have, and go on fiddling ineptly with the key, in time everyone will have given up and gone home.”

“There are on all sides encouraging signs. But if the gathering light is not to prove a false dawn, there must be a far more thorough-going reconstruction than any yet envisaged, both in the Church’s structure and in her presentation of her teaching. The latter involves nothing less than a change of perspective.”

John Austin Baker was a prophet – not a prophet who foretold the future but one who foretold what the future required. He was far too optimistic about the trajectory of Church of England life in subsequent decades, especially in the years following his retirement.

The church has not regained the perspective of the original gospel. Many still believe in retributive justice and a magician-god. I read their posts on Facebook every day. Those who value freedom and responsibility either find themselves pushed to the fringes of the church, or feel frustrated, or have given up on the church. The church lacks the imagination to take in the vastness of the universe and our place in it along with the vastness of John’s imagination of supreme, sacrificial, unconditional love. False Christs remain, and the purveyors of false Christs prevent the church from overcoming its prejudiced ideas about gender and sexuality. Men and women still fall down and worship false images, and the key holders still fiddle ineptly.

The encouraging signs John saw nearly half-a-century ago proved to be a false dawn. The thorough-going reconstruction of the basics of faith, structure and teaching involving a change of perspective was not taken seriously. The wisdom of those writing in the 60s, 70s and 80s, wisdom that so excited me then and still excites me today, has virtually disappeared from today’s conversation in the Church of England. The false dawn continues, hence my pessimistic assessment in yesterday’s blog of the potential for a radical outcome from work on the House of Bishops’ Teaching Document. Until the church awakens to the need for a far more radical change of perspective about God, the prophetic dawn identified by John Austin Baker will not come to be. How to pursue such an event within the Church of England? Aye, there’s the rub, and the challenge I’m pursued and haunted by.