Newsletter 27 (Spring '00)

Seeking Hope in the Ruins of Postmodernity

Tim Corney

I belong to generation X - the children of the most divorced, most mobile parents this century. I live in a time of exceptionally high incidence of youth suicide and drug induced road trauma, of child abuse and violent crime. Hope, for my generation, has gone missing. I have accepted the global media's paradox of macro-homogenisation and micro-fragmentation. The result is that I no longer know who, or what I am supposed to be. Gender distinctions have been blurred, national cultures appropriated and dismantled, normative values have been turned on their head and institutions ridiculed and maligned. Societies' structures and functions are breaking down.

This is not an ideological revolution. The only blood on the streets is my own. The old has not gone; it has been de-constructed, the guts surgically removed leaving only the great external shells at which to gaze and marvel.

As a child I was promised a future - a future full of idealism and hope. I hoped for racial equality, gender balance and economic justice. I am the child of a generation of counter-cultural parents. I watched as they grew their hair, took their clothes off, sang songs of peace and love and then orchestrated the largest global recession in recent history. Instead of hope, we received greenhouse gases, ozone holes and the bulldozing into extinction of the humble tree.

The lost ideals, the dreams and visions were replaced with technology and then force-fed to us the siblings of the summer of love. Technology is no substitute for the future that was promised. The key to our survival must be the sharing of hope, the experiencing of hope, the realisation of hope, the incarnating of hope. Douglas Copeland in his book Generation X writes simply that hope is contained in the sharing of our actual, or intended stories, the journey of our lives.

The answer it seems is not in a return to modernity for ironically 'progress' has moved us on. For those under the age of thirty post-modernism is a western social reality. It has been subliminally propagated into our genes and neuro cells by the media, arts, literature and education, and there is no going back. Those concerned for this generation must learn to embrace rather than reject hope. They must use the vehicles of a post-modern world to convey hope - the Hope. Not virtual hope, not vibro tactile hope, but flesh and blood hope, the hope of the incarnation.

I recently attended a Christian Conference on Post-modernism, the most interesting feature of which was the open forum discussions. This part of the conference soon degenerated into an Oprah Winfrey style 'show and tell' with a number of senior clerics dropping their metaphorical pants and revealing their inadequacies. The problem, it seemed, for most was how to communicate their values and beliefs to their children. In other words, how to cross the cultural and philosophical divide that lies between the world-views of current and emerging generations.

One senior leader said to me after the conference, 'This could have been 1970 instead of 1995, the same prophets urging the church towards relevance, and still no one is listening.' I came away from the conference asking myself the question, 'What hope has the Church got?' If it didn't learn anything the last time a cultural revolution came to town, what will it learn this time? Hope epitomises the difference between then and now. The 1970's brimmed with hope, the 1990's do not. The hope that was promised was not delivered and cynicism, sarcasm, meaninglessness and irony have filled the void.

As I walk the streets of my city, the spray-can voices shout out in polychrome unison the disillusionment, boredom and helplessness of a street culture that has stopped trying to make sense of the world. Thielicke said 'The Gospel must be continuously forwarded to a new address because the recipient is repeatedly changing his place of residence'. The current address for the average young person is as far from the Church as the east is from the west. The Church it seems does not even possess the technology to mail the Gospel on let alone know how to package it. And even if it managed to get there, somehow, who would unwrap it so the package was not mistaken for the gift?

Perhaps this is a time of exile for the Church and, like long ago, God has sent his angel of death to pass over the lintels splashed with blood only to find that the Church has not made the hard decisions, has not made the sacrifices, is not packed and ready to go. The blood of obedience is not splashed on our door posts and the angel of death, instead of passing over, has taken up residence. There are those, though, who have seen the signs and responded. For them this is a time of exciting change and presents another chance to realise the dreams and visions of peace, love, equity, jusitce, forgiveness and reconciliation - and the opportunity to offer again to those without hope, Grace and the eternal hope that it brings.

This article was first published in Zadok Perspectives, July 1995; it is reprinted by permission of the author.

 

Postmodernity - under construction

Graham Cray

Choosing who we want to be and making up the truths that help us get by are the marks of 'constructivism', a belief system made plausible by postmodernity. Graham Cray considers the issues.

'Postmodernity' is a term used by sociologists to label the emerging form of Western and Western-influenced societies under the combined impact of a number of social changes. It marks firstly the transition from a society which finds its meaning in production to one focused in consumerism. 'Where once Westerners might have found their identity, their social togetherness and the ongoing life of their society in the area of production, these are today increasingly found through consumption.' Secondly it marks the transition from the industrial age to the information age; and thirdly it marks the process in which these first two combine as they are networked around the world through the phenomenon of globalisation. Postmodernity then is a way of life, which sociologists have named by reference to postmodern theory.

What is the impact of postmodernity upon belief? Gregor McLennan points out 'how radical the challenge of "postmodernity" is. This is because the crisis and (supposed) passing of modernity is not merely a matter of economic, political and cultural processes; it is also the crisis of a whole way of understanding the social world, a long established way of 'knowing' society.' If postmodernity has taken its name from postmodern theory has it also given postmodern theory a level of plausibility which it would otherwise lack?

The change from the language of certainty to that of plausibility is itself a sign of our postmodern setting. Peter Berger has demonstrated the way in which society acts as a 'plausibility structure' for belief.

Other writers have made use of the concept. 'Ideas and world views are maintained by social support. They are culturally embedded in community.' 'The power of any culture is measured by the extent to which its formulation of reality seems "natural".' Postmodernity makes postmodern theory seem plausible.

from relativism to constructivism

In modernity the great ideological enemy of the gospel was secularism. This is no longer the case; spirituality is back in the public square, in fact any and every spirituality - and there are no maps! I used to believe that our primary new adversary was relativism: that our media saturated age with its bombardment of messages and its shopping approach to choice made relativism seem self evident, and a sceptical or ironic attitude towards truth claims unavoidable. I still believe this is the case but I no longer consider relativism to be our chief opponent, for beyond relativism is constructivism, and it is constructivism which we must engage.

The postmodern world has gone beyond an initial recognition of pluralism (the reality that there are competing truth claims), to relativism (that no truth claim can claim superiority over any other) and is now settling on constructivism (the claim that truth is something we construct to help us through life.) The final postmodern move is thus from realism (the truth is out there to be found) to constructivism (we make up truths to get by). 'We are in the midst of a great, confusing, stressful and enormously promising historical transition, and it has to do with a change not so much in what we believe as in how we believe. ... People all over the world are making shifts .. in belief about belief.' Of itself this is not a new concept. It can be found in Nietzsche. But, as we shall see, postmodernity gives it a new plausibility.

Truth and Identity

In discussing postmodernity Christians tend to focus their concern on the issue of truth. However the secular literature increasingly focuses on the matter of identity. It seems increasingly obvious in our consumer society that we make ourselves whatever we want to be through out lifestyle (i.e. consumer) choices. 'Lifestyle choice is increasingly important in the constitution of self-identity.' Indeed, for young people, 'Today everything is presented as a possibility.' As these writers point out this is an 'epistemological fallacy' which ignores all sorts of inequalities, but it is still the case that 'making yourself up' is presented as a market opportunity. 'If identities are essentially forms of social construction, then one can be anything at any time ..'

There are a number of difficulties with the contructivist view in addition to its lack of realism about inequality. The first is the instability of the identities formed in this way. 'The overwhelming variety of .. possibilities for identity, in an affluent image culture no doubt create highly unstable identities while constantly providing new openings to restructure one's identity.' As a consequence postmodern men and women become increasingly controlled by what others think of them, precisely by following an ideology which emphasises individual choice.

Secondly postmodernity values the freedom to avoid identity above the drive to find or establish it. 'The hub of postmodern life strategy is not identity building but avoidance of fixation.' 'Keep the options open.' Postmodern human beings run from any hint that they might be answerable to anything or anyone beyond themselves.

Thirdly this whole approach avoids the question who it is (that is what is the identity of the person) who makes these identity constructing choices? Richard Rorty claims that 'there is no centre to the self' , and as a challenge to the Enlightenment understanding of a 'centred self' he is partly right. The Christian response, however, must point to the self deceptive nature of human sin. Miroslav Volf has written a splendid reply to Rorty's point, based on Galatians 2:19-20: 'Though the self may lack an "objective" and "immovable" centre, the self is never without a centre; it is always engaging in the production of its own centre. ... Whichever way the centering takes place and whatever its result, the self should be de-centred, claims Paul ... then a recentering of that same self can take place. The centre is Jesus Christ crucified and resurrected who has become part and parcel of the very structure of the self. ... At the centre of the (new) self lies self-giving love.' The postmodern self seeks to construct identity while evading answerability. The only Christian response is the stumbling block of the cross.

The same constructivist approach is taken to truth. Once again Rorty makes a good spokesman. 'There is nothing deep down inside us except what we have put there ourselves, no criterion that we have not created in the course of creating a practice .' He also recognises that theists and atheists will part from one another on this issue. 'We need to make a distinction between the claim that the world is out there and the claim that truth is out there. ... The suggestion that truth, as well as the world, is out there is a legacy of an age in which the world was seen as the creation of a being who had a language of his own.'

Constructivism seems common sense to many people who never read philosophy. A leading article in The Face, a style magazine, said 'The Nineties quest for life and some sort of authenticity, coupled with a gradual loss of faith in the capacity of big ideals to save our souls, has led us to make up our own truths, build our own small worlds as best we can.' Nor are all constructivists happy about their conclusions. The novelist Iain Banks has a character who reflects 'All is construction in the end ... But we are the naming beast, the animal that thinks with language ... our fine defining words tame nothing in the end, and should we ever fall victim to the unseen grammar of life, we must brave the elements and suffer their indifference, fully requited, in return.'

No meaning in life

Excited or disillusioned, the underlying assumption is the same. There is no inherent meaning in life or the universe. Attempts to establish identity or map meaning or truth are necessary therapeutic exercises which are ultimately arbitrary - because postmoderns no longer believe in a God with a language of his own.

It is important not to over react. We are constructivists but we are constructivists under licence. 'It is the distinction of the human creature, created in the image of God, to be called to exercise its created destiny in finite freedom. .... Where it interprets itself as absolute self-created freedom and denies its character as gift, it falls into a bondage from which it can find no escape.' The world is not without meaning, it is laden with it. Only our sin stops us seeing it (Romans 1:18-23). The commission to be stewards of the earth means that we are to construct cultures in which our identity as God's children can thrive and in which our rational and imaginative powers seek out God's truth. But it may be that before we challenge postmoderns with the stumbling block of the cross we must challenge them with the stumbling block of creation, for we are creatures whose identity is found in our creator's purposes.

 

Comment

A new start for the Church

Ian Cowley

The first two weeks of the new Millennium did not bring good news for the church in England. Dr. Peter Brierly released his latest report on church attendance in England, entitled ‘The time is running out’. "Church attendances fall by 2000 a week", read the headline in one newspaper. The report went on to say that ‘churches in England will "bleed to death" within a generation if the current rate of decline continues.'’

Churches Together in England have challenged us to make a New Start for the Millennium. They have spoken of a new start with God, a new start at home, and a new start for the world’s poor. Perhaps we should add to this our commitment and desire to make a new start for the church.

What would that mean in practice? Different people will give different answers. However it seems to me that much depends on one word: integrity. Integrity is about our deeds matching our words. It is about showing that we mean business by living out what we profess. Of course we can never perfectly live out the teaching of Christ, because of the weakness of our humanity. But the world of the new Millennium is looking for those who have the courage to live their lives in a way which truly makes a difference to others. They are not very interested in our words. In the post modern world it is deeds not words that count.

So what does integrity mean for the church? It means not just talking about prayer, but being a people of prayer. It means taking up the challenge of holiness and living simply in a world of consumerism and greed. It means building the life of the local church and community on relationships that are real, compassionate and trustworthy. It means being with the poor the homeless and the marginalised, and enabling their cries to be heard. It means not just talking about church unity, but being one church, no matter what name we happen to call our congregation.

Surely if we make this kind of new start, we will not have to worry too much about churches in England "bleeding to death".

Culture snips

The last issue reminded us how 'healthy' and 'unhealthy' are acceptable normative metaphors today where talk of 'good' and 'bad' feels - well, unhealthy. Meanwhile a breakfast cereal now portrays physical health in spiritual terms: 'It's time to think healthy. Of course you can put it off.. but if you feel like a jelly on a lilo why make even the teeniest-weensiest excuses for yourself? After all this is the big one - it's you! … So treat your body like a temple, and serve it pure … toasted to heavenly perfection…' This, we are told, means we will feel 'horribly smug and for such little effort'. Oh dear! Never was 'cheap grace' quite so knowing…

 

Response to Oliver O'Donovan's "Mission, Coercion and Christendom"

Alan Kreider

There is value and beauty in Oliver O'Donovan's observations. The "idea" of Christendom as the product of mission involving the "homage of the kings to the Lord of the martyrs" has the authentic eschatological ring of Revelation 21. Until this is achieved, we must constantly discern whether this movement or that institution - whether they are called Christian or not - are "subject to the rule of Christ."

Let us bear these things in mind as we discern about our missionary situation. Our continent, Europe, "leads the world in godlessness" (Church Times 17.12.99). Why Europe? What is it that makes this ex-Christian civilization so godless? There are no doubt many reasons. But I believe that one reason is Christendom, not the "idea" of Christendom but the particular expression of Christendom that has dominated Europe for the past fifteen hundred years.

How so? Is not O'Donovan right in greeting the advent of a Christian civilization which resulted from a successful mission which vindicated the martyrs' cause? I wish he were. I wish the "conversion of the Empire" and its rulers had been profound. Instead, as I argue in detail in my new book, in the interests of what O'Donovan calls "success" the post-Constantine churchmen took two short-cuts. First, they abbreviated their catechism and made it primarily theological; they stopped being radically practical. Converts in baptism still assented to Christ's Lordship, but the preachers and catechists ignored or smoothed the edges of Christ's teaching about wealth, war, oath-taking, and voluntary discipleship. Indeed, faced by queues of converts, they often taught very little. A study of their preaching across the fourth century shows that they "modulated their preaching" on wealth, to facilitate the conversion of the eminent and wealthy (Rita Lizzi). A similar diachronic study of legislation shows that the Christian empire had "more frequent resort to torture and executions in the name of justice" (Ramsay MacMullen). We may speak grandly, as O'Donovan does, about kings "offering homage to Christ." But a study of the concreteness of Christendom can lead us to ask: was the "Christendom" faith that in so many ways mirrored the values of the upper classes "subject to the rule of Christ"?

Second, the churchmen sanctioned the use of force for conversion. Some Europeans became Christians freely and joyfully; many others did so as a result of "inducement and compulsion" (Herbert Butterfield). Bishop Cyprian, typical of early Christians, had insisted "that the liberty of believing or of not believing is placed in free choice" (Ad Quirinum 3.52). By Augustine's mature years, it was illegal publicly to practice "heretical" or pagan worship. "For long, Christians did not dare answer a pagan; now, thank God, it is a crime to remain a pagan" (Enarr in Ps34/2.13). Lords pressured their underlings to be baptized - and many ordinary people temporized and engaged in passive resistance and secretive paganism. Of course, as O'Donovan points out, Christians could still be martyred. But now it was generally the Christians that were persecuting people, making them (whether pagans or "heretics") martyrs to their convictions. Was this a vindication of the martyrs' cause?

We are now in post-Christendom. O'Donovan is right: it is not possible to "recover pre-Constantinian innocence." Our good news in Christ can't sound new as it did before Constantine; instead, after Christendom it sounds old and unexciting, a compulsory faith that failed. Christianity can make an impact today, and it will do so when Jesus' resurrection life is demonstrated and his teaching, in all its radicality, is "embodied in a political community that we call church" (Hauerwas, After Christendom?, 26). For this to happen, we must be discerning about the heritage of Western Christendom. What in it is worthy, "vesting authority in Christ's own person"? About what must we think anew? For what must we say sorry?

Jesus' issues were public, political issues, so this discernment will happen in the public domain; the early Christians were not a catacombs movement and we cannot be either. But, as in Christianity's first three centuries, Christians who freely discover Jesus' teachings to be a way of "life in all its abundance" will attract others. Among these in the fullness of time will be kings who say "Lord, Lord" and who do what Jesus said. Towards that realization of the "idea" of Christendom we missionaries to the West move in hope.

Kreider, Alan. The Change of Conversion and the Origin of Christendom. Christian Mission and Modern Culture, Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1999.

Butterfield, Herbert. Christianity and History. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1949, 135.

Hauerwas, Stanley. After Christendom? Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1991, 29.

Lizzi, Rita. "Ambrose's Contemporaries and the Christianization of Northern Italy." Journal of Roman Studies 80 (1990), 167.

MacMullen, Ramsay. "What Difference Did Christianity Make?" Historia 35 (1986), 341.

 

Streams of Reflection

Radical discipleship: the anabaptist tradition

Brian Haymes

Much discussion of ethics among European and American theologians this century has focussed on methodological issues in dialogue with moral philosophers, particularly studies of moral dilemmas, and social issues on which it is assumed that Christians should have a voice. There has come a steady flow of reports on many of the major issues confronting humankind from denominations, alliances and working parties, national and world Councils of Churches. These reports and encyclicals on topics as varied as race, economic justice, war and peace, human sexuality and much else have contained some very important, significant and urgent material. They have often been expressed as contributions to major debates already going on in the world. For those of us working and teaching in the field of social Christian ethics this was our inheritance and we are grateful.

Then some of us discovered John Howard Yoder. A recent collection of scholarly essays published in his honour1 refer in particular to the powerful effect of his book The Politics of Jesus.2 Another source bearing similar tribute comes from the less scholarly but thoughtful world of church members concerned to be faithful to Jesus.3

Among many insights, and against the predominant stream, Yoder stressed two related affirmations. The first was that Jesus really is significant for social ethics. The inherited assumption was that Jesus' teaching, as in the Sermon on the Mount, was idealistic, perhaps at home in the ethics of personal relationships, but not in the tough world of social ethics and issues of international justice and peace. So Reinhold Niebuhr admitted to a grateful acknowledgment of Christian pacifism but saw that response as fundamentally irresponsible in the world of social economic groupings, of politics, and of nation states. There remained 'The relevance of an impossible possibility' but that way, Niebuhr argued, was impossible for the responsible.4 By contrast, Yoder argued that Jesus had not called his disciples to an apolitical life. Indeed to name him as Lord was immediately to relativise all other political, social and moral claims. The fundamental Christian confession was inescapably political. And, anyway, by what criteria were actions and policies to be judged responsible? Whose was the responsibility? And to whom?

But, and this is the second insight, Yoder and others like Wilbert Shenk5 and Stanley Hauerwas, underlined the significance of the Church as an ethical community. Against increasingly individualistic forms of faith Yoder asserted the importance of being the Church. Indeed, to be baptised is not to strike some personal deal with Jesus, nor to be 'christianised' without your knowledge and maybe even against your will, but rather is to be one with Christ and all others who are his Body. The Church is thus the new humanity in which such distinctions as economic status, ethnicity and gender do not apply (Gal.3.28) however significant they may be in the world. As such the Church does not seek to have a social ethic. It is a social ethic, expressing in its own faithful following of Jesus the new humanity of God.

This is the tradition of radical discipleship, of anabaptism and the believers' church.6 It has often been misunderstood and described as sectarian by those sympathetic to Christendom ways of being Church. For example, in H. Richard Niebuhr's influential Christ and Culture the believers' church tradition is cast as a representative of Christ against Culture.7 For many years Yoder had a widely distributed but unpublished critique of this book. This important essay is now available in Authentic Transformation.8 In it Yoder argues that Niebuhr has skewed the debate about Christ and Culture from the first with his opening definitions of both Christ and Culture. Such definitions presuppose relativism and pluralism and so Niebuhr can plead for a diversity of 'types' leading to descriptive rather than normative ethics. Yoder asks what does it mean to say 'Jesus Christ is Lord'? He argues that the will of God can be known, can be done, and that the Church is called to live out its confession. The call to "transformation" can only have substance, he says, if there has already been such a modelling of that to which the hearers are called'.

As such the Church is a new cultural option. Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon9 declare the Church is constantly being formed and reformed by the narrative of God's gospel ways. By living in this community, repeating and reliving the narrative, the Church is shaped by the gospel. Inevitably, loyalty to Christ will mean distinctions between the Church and the world but without these distinctions the cutting edge of the Church's mission is blunted and Christian identity, both social and personal, is blurred. But it could be that only such a community has something authentic to offer in mission to the world.

Not a few contemporary Christians are finding in these writers, and the radical discipleship traditions they are exploring, new ways of being Church - and of advocating the Gospel of Jesus Christ - in the post-Christendom world.

Readers of the Gospel and Our Culture network newsletter may like to know of the Anabaptist Network with its regional study groups and the journal Anabaptism Today. Further details can be obtained from Alan Kreider at Regent's Park College, Pusey Street, Oxford, OX1 2LB, Stuart Murray at 205 South Norwood Hill, London, SE25 6DN and Mark Theissen Nation at the London Mennonite centre, 14 Shepherds Hill, London N6 5AQ.

  1. The Wisdom of the Cross, edited by S. Hauerwas, C.K. Huebner, H.J. Huebner and M.T. Nation, Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1999.
  2. John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus (Second Edition), Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1994
  3. A. Kreider and S. Murray, Coming Home: Stories of Anabaptists in Britain and Ireland, Kitchener, Ontario, Pandora Press (forthcoming)
  4. R.Niebuhr, Interpretation of Christian Ethics, New York, Harper 1935
  5. Wilbert Shenk is one of the editors of the Christian Mission and Modern Culture series published by Trinity Press International, Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. Shenk's own contribution is entitled Write the Vision: The Church Renewed (1995)
  6. A splendid popular study of the Church understood in these terms is Rodney Clapp, A Peculiar People: the Church as culture in a post-Christian Society, Downer's grove, IVP, 1996
  7. H. R. Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, New York, Harper Torchbacks, 1951
  8. G.H. Stassen, D.M. Yeager and J.H.Yoder, Authentic transformation: a New Vision of Christ and Culture, Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1996
  9. See S. Hauerwas and W. Willemon, Resident Aliens, Nashville, Abington Press, 1989

 

Book Reviews

A Walk through the Bible

Lesslie Newbigin, Triangle, 1999

This must go down as the easiest book anyone could be asked to review. It can be read in less than an hour. It is simple, easy to understand, but full of insights. It is vintage Newbigin, refreshing and clear.

Based on eight talks given on Premier Radio, the book tells the story of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. As someone who has tried to do this many a time, I can only admire how much Lesslie packs into a short space and how many insights that have never occurred to me are contained in these few pages.

This ought to accompany every Bible that is sold or given away to enable the recipient to understand what he or she is reading about. Why not give it with that Confirmation Bible, though it would probably do better at the beginning of the course rather than at the end? Alpha organisers, use it to lead your enquirers into the mysteries and the wonder of the Bible story. It is an admirable find and deserves to be well used in many spheres of Christian education.

John B. Taylor

 

Pathways to Wholeness: Pastoral Care in a Postmodern Age

Roger Hurding, Hodder & Stoughton, 1998

Roger Hurding has performed an invaluable service to all those wandering through the maze of pastoral care and pastoral theology. Pathways to Wholeness provides a map of the territory (in Hurding's own words) which puts into context the larger issues that underlie the surface differences between the various pathways

to wholeness on offer in the Church today. These pathways of pastoral care comprise: biblical counselling, charismatic healing and deliverance ministries, pastoral counselling (which draws heavily upon good practice in secular counselling), spiritual direction, and social change. Each pathway is given a

fair hearing, elucidating the different goals of each pathway, their different doctrinal approaches, hermeneutics, application of scripture, and variety of spiritualities and theologies that shape them. The strengths and weaknesses of each approach, given its application in a postmodern age, is discussed, and

often, a way forward for synthesis is suggested.

Such an undertaking is no mean feat. Pastoral theology is a diverse field which struggles to understand itself and to define its own coherence. The first half of the book seems to reflect the 'fuzziness' of pastoral care, echoing pastoral theology's need to keep asking itself: 'What is the goal? What is Christian wholeness'? After a bit of wandering among these thorny issues in a postmodern context, Hurding catapults us into organised clarity in the second half of the book.

The book serves well two very different customers: complete novices and experts in the field. For those with very little knowledge of the field, it provides an initial map, and highlights the issues that need to be faced. The complexities of postmodernism, various hermeneutic approaches, differences in philosophy and

theology, and the range of psychological theories which inform the varieties of pastoral care would certainly be for the novice, bewildering. Although only nutshell summaries are possible in the space of one volume, these summaries are useful and accurate, sufficing as an initial guide. The book is probably easier to digest for those with more experience in the field, where one's prior understanding pads out the many issues raised. Here, Hurding provides the valuable service of organising a huge body of knowledge into a

comprehensible framework, enabling the reader to make informed evaluations. The breadth of the book, with its scholarly underlay, does not make light reading, and yet the book is written clearly and compassionately. Hurding never veers away from his own role as wounded healer, so the volume never

descends into a mere academic trawl of the issues. The spirituality and compassion of tried and tested experience in pastoral care shines forth, illuminating an otherwise fragmented field.

Sara Savage

 

Threshold to the Future

Mike Riddell, Triangle

Mike Riddell’s latest passionate book follows closely on the heels of previous titles that have won him a good reputation. It is a must for anybody who has an interest in Western post-industrialised societies and their culture. The author is concerned with the re-integration of Christian groups into their culture and their local communities - a matter in which he experiences some frustration with the established church.

Mike addresses the demise of the Church in Western society. He analyses the reasons for this when interest in spirituality has become commonplace, interest often of a perfectly healthy kind. He compares the church a terminally ill patient who, buoyed by steroid medication, may comfortably deny their illness to themselves.

The author looks at the elements within cultural change and their effect on the zeitgeist of our times. This is uncomfortable reading: it highlights how great a challenge faces the Church as we move from modernity to post-modernity and all its new uncertainties. It is frightening to think just how isolated the Church is becoming from popular and local culture.

In a key section, the author finds in Acts 10.1 - 11.18 evidence of how the early church met the crisis of changing culturally from a solely Jewish following to an inclusive one, offering guidance and hope for us in our own period. He gently leads us to reappraise our attitudes, values, and activities, and to centre ourselves anew on Christ. I personally was deeply challenged by warnings about the ‘sin of holiness’. It can be much easier to rely on following a set of right behaviours than to live in a relationship of dependence on an invisible God who demands obedience: a God who went to some of the most broken and lost places of our world, talked, ate, and drank with all. Riddell's emphasis on relationship rather than pragmatics is refreshing.

When looking at the principles of Christianity, Riddell reminds the reader that the world now strives to be non-hierarchical, gender-inclusive in structures and language, creative, holistic and whole. Work is increasingly seen as demanding workers to be team players rather than individuals competing their way up the career ladder. This world is moving away from the traditional structures of institutions, the family, work, and leisure. Our Church, however, still draws on those traditional structures. Can the church change?

In our visually-oriented world, Riddell challenges the church to make room for artists and their expressions of Christianity. In a world that mistrusts institutions, the power of art to communicate truth is vital. Testimony - ‘this is my story of God’ - may be the Spirit's exciting lead in the place of traditional evangelism and sermons. Riddell anticipates a Church alive in smaller, non-institutional gatherings of community-focused Christians.

The author ends by analysing some projects in Australia and New Zealand that have started to grapple with the issues of being Church connected in the World. These include projects related to the alternative/creative worship international movement, and community projects attempting to 'build into' the everyday, such as cafe’s and bars.

I give this book ten out of ten. I do not do this lightly; I feel this is a very important book for a Church that needs to stop and listen.

Ian Mobsby

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Newsletter 28 (Summer '00)

Godless morality?

David Fergusson

Richard Holloway's book Godless Morality: Keeping Religion Out Of Ethics was published last year by Canongate. David Fergusson reflects upon issues raised by it.

Richard Holloway is one of the most articulate and controversial episcopal figures of our day. His preaching, writings and other statements command constant public attention. A capacity for the telling soundbite and the arresting allusion have endeared him to the media, sometimes at the price of misrepresentation. While later this year he will retire as Bishop of Edinburgh and Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church, it is hard to imagine that his public appeal will diminish. Of his many books, this latest is probably the one that has aroused the widest controversy; though there may be little here that will surprise those familiar with positions he has adopted elsewhere.

Holloway’s principal target is what he labels the ‘total system’. This often appears in religious form. It is an attempt to offer straightforward and reliable means for resolving moral dilemmas, usually by appeal to the authority of a institution or a sacred text to pronounce definitively on all possible matters of ethical debate. By contrast, Holloway prefers the metaphor of ‘ethical jazz’. The complex and rapidly changing culture we inhabit requires us to be adept at moral improvisation. Tradition, for Holloway, is perceived almost entirely in negative terms. Too often it restricts and cramps our capacity to respond creatively to new ethical challenges. It prevents us from looking at problems in a new and liberating way. Its outcomes are frequently hostile to those with whom we disagree. It is regularly impatient with the moral compromises that are necessary for the flourishing of a pluralist society. This complaint against the oppressive tendency of religious ethics is occasionally buttressed by other arguments. Thus he notes that in a society in which fewer people believe in God we need to find ways of understanding ethics which do not invoke theological premises. Moreover, to seek the sanctions of religion in support of moral conclusions may only distort morality by reducing it to a matter of prudential self-interest. Instead we need to think of those values that should animate our lives. Holloway tells us repeatedly that these comprise avoiding harm to others, respecting their rights and maintaining justice.

There is much that one can commend in this book, and it has already been enthusiastically endorsed by Baroness Warnock and others. Holloway is a refreshingly honest writer who confesses to his own misgivings and doubts. He tackles some of the most intractable moral dilemmas of our day. He has a capacity for the telling illustration and can draw on a remarkable breadth of resources ranging from Shakespeare on lust to the painful narrative of the children who murdered two-year old James Bulger. Holloway’s crusading commitment to the value of gay relationships is again apparent, but so are his reflections on the need to rethink social and legal attitudes to addictive substances. There are highly readable chapters on changing attitudes to sexuality in today’s youth culture, abortion and euthanasia, and issues in modern reproductive technology.

I find myself in agreement with some of Holloway’s claims. There is no infallible text or teaching authority which can readily resolve our ethical dilemmas. The history of the church reveals movement and diversity on a range of moral and theological issues. Much has had to be learned from the insights and challenges of those outside the faith community. The certainties we espouse are sometimes unfounded. Under the impact of criticism and experience they require revision. The problem, however, is that these premises are not enough to yield the putative thesis of the book which is that we should keep religion out of ethics altogether and find other ways of being moral. This is a curious position to adopt, particularly at a time of increased moral disagreement and diversity, not to mention the pervasive amoralism of much contemporary life. Are the concepts of harm, rights and justice to which he frequently alludes as self-evident and uncontested as he seems to think? Presumably Holloway does not want the church to stop pronouncing on moral issues - otherwise why write such a book? But the implicit claim is that such pronouncement should not be from a vantage point which claims special insight or privileged knowledge.

New Testament witness

The possibilities of a theological contribution to ethics are not exhausted by claims for an infallible text or a magisterial office; nor is the religious component of morality to be expressed by a system of divine rewards and punishments. Much scholarly effort has been invested in recent years in exploring the social world of the New Testament and the early church. In the work of Wayne Meeks and Richard Hays, for example, it is argued that the moral ecology of the first Christians is shaped in significant ways by the beliefs, worship practices and forms of life that are expressed by the church and in part borrowed from Israel. In entering the church one does not adopt an entirely new set of ethical precepts, yet there is a reshaping of perception and an intensification of ethical seriousness and commitment. How else can we understand the seamless shift from theological confession to ethical exhortation throughout the epistles? Thus the demands of eucharistic fellowship challenge patterns of social and gender stratification. The insistence that the body is the temple of the Lord is accompanied by a stress on sexual purity. The scattered congregations of the church and their itinerant missionaries provide a renewed emphasis upon the Jewish requirement of hospitality towards strangers. And as we trace the history of the early church so we find in homilies and treatises a tradition of critical reflection upon war, slavery, abortion and the state. This is neither infallible nor does it offers a blueprint for every ethical dilemma. Yet it indicates some of the ways in which Christian faith was preoccupied with moral living and can continue to contribute its own perspective today.

Resources for judgement

Holloway’s discounting of the role of tradition entirely ignores inter alia the recent writings of Jonathan Sacks and Alasdair MacIntyre in support of this. The moral wisdom we bring to contemporary ethical problems and upon which we seek to build is derived from long traditions of practice, story, example and belief. A tradition is neither immobile nor immune to revision, but improvisation can only take place on the basis of a prior immersion within it. Holloway’s tendency to caricature the role of tradition in terms of blind obedience or Pavlovian training misses the point. We need this induction into inherited traditions of wisdom to acquire the resources for adequate moral deliberation and judgement. And was it not the tragedy of the young murderers of James Bulger that they were scandalously deprived of the necessary nurture and training in early life?

A rejoinder

In conclusion, let me consider a possible rejoinder. Would a renewed emphasis upon tradition make any difference finally to the outcomes of Holloway’s moral reasoning in this book? I think it would. Consider the following two examples. On the subject of casual sex amongst the young, Holloway, if not approving, remains relaxed. ‘The excesses of the shagging culture in the youth scene today,’ he informs us, ‘will probably do them little lasting damage, though there will, inevitably be casualties’. I question whether this is too complacent. Are the adoption of promiscuous habits in early life likely to militate against the forming of permanent, faithful relationships in later years which in turn provide the context for the nurture of children? Or is this latter ideal to be abandoned simply as the residue of a dying tradition? If not, then our bodies need to be trained in ways that must run directly counter to the prevailing signals of popular culture today. Second, Holloway’s treatment of abortion, though often perceptive, comes out pretty much in favour of a status quo in which abortion is readily available to those who seek it until about the mid-stages of pregnancy. This degree of acquiescence, however, is not likely to be shared by those who are keenly aware of the sacredness of life and the tendency of the early church almost universally to oppose practices of abortion and the exposure of infants in the ancient world. Even where abortion remains on occasion a tragic possibility to be permitted, must we not be scandalised by annual figures which suggest that we have now tacitly sanctioned a regime of abortion on demand, and this on the basis of the morally incoherent notion of ‘viability’?

Culture Snips

'Seeing Salvation: The Image of Christ'

It sounds like an exhibition that will delight the faithful and alienate everyone else, according to Jonathan Jones in the Guardian Weekly. Yet the National Gallery's exhibition has been an enormous success - attracting 25,000 visitors a week. The Director, Neil MacGregor, agrees that for the believer looking at images of Christ humiliated and destitute there will be an extra dimension; 'but even without being a believer you go away reminded of the indestructible dignity of every individual, and the unacceptability of anybody being humiliated like this.'

MacGregor presses further the 'scandal of universality'. It has been pointed out that he did not exhibit Francis Bacon. As a non-believer, Bacon said, the crucifixion was 'just an act of man's behaviour, a way of behaviour to another'. Which sounds a more 'inclusive' way of seeing it. But MacGregor questions: 'I think it's fair to compare a Bacon image of suffering with a traditional Christian one. Which can work more universally? Which is better able to suggest that suffering is something universal in which we all partake?'…

 

Network news in brief

 

Pastoral care in a postmodern culture

Roger Hurding

The last newsletter contained reflections on postmodernity. Here Roger Hurding traces some implications for Christian caring in this setting.

Pastoral care has been intrinsic to the calling of the people of God since Yahweh first declared himself to be the Shepherd of Israel. The nurturing, guiding, companionate model of care demonstrated by Jesus Christ the Good Shepherd has been carried over into the life of the Church as an essential aspect of its call to live out the Gospel within each succeeding generation. That overall vocation can be summed up as comprising teaching, proclamation and pastoral care, where the last-named embraces the practical expression by clergy and laity of the Church's concern for the everyday and ultimate needs both of its members and of the wider community.

And yet we must ask, just as we do with regard to teaching and proclamation, how is Christian pastoral care to engage with and respond to the prevailing moods, attitudes and lifestyles of each successive culture? It has been said that pastoral care 'has always utilized current psychologies,¹ and whether we take the example of the influence of Greek Stoicism ('grit your teeth and endure') on the pastoral writings of John Chrysostom in the fourth century, or that of an understanding of the 'mental faculties' ('remember, reflect and exercise your will for change') on John Keble's ministerial letters in the nineteenth, we need to see that our caring for others is inevitably part and parcel of the culture we live in.

Where, then, does that leave us in terms of exercising pastoral care within a postmodern culture at the beginning of a new millenium? Difficult as it is to answer this within the constraints of a short article, let us, first, highlight the salient features of postmodernity before pinpointing two areas within contemporary culture which, I believe, have the most constructive potential for the pastoral encounter.

Postmodernity: the Pastoral Context

Cultural change is often a subtle affair and difficult to pin down during times of transition. It is worth noting, for example, that the idea of modernity is still prevalent in society, as in New Labour's thrusting commitment to being a thoroughly modern party. Whereas the hall mark of the premodern can be seen to have been an avowal that divine providence ordered the seasons and human affairs, modernity makes a bid for human autonomy in its insatiable quest for progress. Although some thus argue that we live within a period of high or late modernity, there seem to be sufficient major shifts in cultural understanding to warrant the concept of postmodernity, a mindset characterised by pluralism.

In every age Christian pastoral care has been inclined to respond to the cultural climate of the day in one of three ways: a welcoming and often unreflective assimilation; a rejecting, drawbridge-raising reaction; or a cautious yet constructive engagement through dialogue. It is in the last of these responses that the Church needs to discern the good, bad and indifferent elements in postmodernity's bid for a plurality that has the potential to infiltrate every aspect of life, including the pastoral.

At its bleakest, postmodernity, by rejecting the notion of the metanarrative (any 'big story', including the foundational one of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, that offers a coherent explanation of life), can move beyond this antifoundationalism to a deconstructionism that assails and recasts the once-familiar landscape of 'providence' and 'progress'. Jonathan Culler likens this suicidal plunge towards oblivion to a scene in which such postmodern trendsetters as Nietzsche, Heidegger and Derrida are sawing off the branch on which they are sitting, suspecting that 'if they fall there is no "ground" to hit and the most clearsighted act is a certain restless sawing, a calculated dismemberment or deconstruction of the great cathedral-like trees in which Man has taken shelter for millenia.'²

And yet, I would argue, there are other more hope-giving dimensions within postmodernity that can encourage the pastoral carer in his or her ministry. Although Derrida and friends may be accused of destroying the ancient forest of human traditions, there are less extreme postmodern voices whose pluralism is committed to celebrating the uniqueness and distinctiveness of each individual tree in that forest. It is here within the valuing of differentness and particularity that the Christian pastoral carer can engage with a measure of confidence in his or her task. We can evaluate this calling to care in a postmodern context under two headings: Stories that Reveal; and A Call to Relatedness.

Stories that Reveal

Although postmodernity has discarded the 'big story' of metanarrative it is unable to dispense with the smaller stories of people's lives. There is an invaluable strand in Christian pastoral care, rooted ultimately in the Lord God's frequent injunctions to his people 'to remember', that sees human lives in terms of a tale to be told. Just as in the examination of a written text there is an interpretative enterprise here that seeks to explore and understand human story. It was Anton Boisen, as long ago as the 1920's and 1930's, who coined the phrase 'living human documents' in relation to the unfolding narratives of psychiatric patients within his work in hospital chaplaincy. Contemporary society has been dubbed a 'culture of interpretation'³ and this hermeneutical endeavour is never clearer than in seeking to unravel and engage with the life of a fellow human being. Although we may 'lose the plot' we are each 'a book to be read' in terms of the pastoral encounter.

For the Christian, lay or ordained, who engages with a pastoral ministry in a postmodern context it is worth remembering that, within the pages of Scripture, 'story' is often illumined by metaphor, symbol, poetry and parable. Such modes of communication are a far cry from modernity's love affair with the cerebral, cognitive and analytical. Postmodernity, at its best, allows mystery on to the stage. The pastoral carer, too, in acknowledging the unique, and often imponderable, blend of experience, memory and perceived event in an individual's story needs to be open to the power of, for example, metaphor in unlocking the door to a new, God-given self-awareness. For myself, on the receiving end of a pastoral conversation, it was the poetic imagery used by Bernard of Clairvaux that pressed home my current need for a patient receiving of God's largesse rather than a ceaseless, and at times unreflective, giving out: '… a canal spreads abroad water as it receives it, but a reservoir waits until it is filled before overflowing, and thus communicates, without loss to itself, its superabundant water. In the Church at the present day, we have many canals, few reservoirs.'

A Call to Relatedness

Where pastoral care concentrates solely on 'living human documents' it is in danger of modernity's tendency to elevate the individual at the expense of the communal, the intrapersonal to the cost of the interpersonal. By the same token postmodern attitudes can splinter and isolate one person from another. Particularity takes precedence over wholeness, and the possibility of human relating is irrevocably lost. In seeking to rescue people from such a nihilistic and dehumanising trend the Christian pastoral carer needs, I suggest, to look at the more constructive potentials within postmodernity in the notion of otherness and the attendant possibility of relatedness. To return to Culler's picture of the forest of human traditions it is important that not only the unique 'story' of each individual tree is valued but attention is also given to the connections between one tree and another.

At the risk of parody we can say that the quintessentially postmodern person will be caught up with the culture's obsession with image and appearance. The declaration, with L'Ore´al, "Because I' m worth it" is less about worth of character, more about looking 'right'. In a pastoral context such an individual may, of course, present with low self-esteem and feelings of worthlessness since he or she may feel marginalised and second-rate in the light of surface glamour and style. Such distortions of self-value may have led to a de-centering of the self in which not only the 'grand narrative' of God's creative and redemptive activity is lost but the person's own sense of individual story is jeopardised.

The way forward for needy men and women caught up by postmodern consumerism and its bewildering, and at times paralysing, offers of endless choice is a recovery of a true relatedness that learns to be at home in God's presence and at lease with fellow human beings. Anthony Giddens5 argues that the self of high modernity often goes wrong at this point in a quest for the 'pure relationship', in which the desire for sexual intimacy is accompanied by shame rather than guilt. Such a demoralised feeling is preoccupied with the notion that the ideal bodily union can never be achieved, rather than with a sense of culpability before a holy God. The pastoral encounter will be well spent in seeking to help the other to see that such 'privatised passion' robs an individual of life's rich connectedness as a redeemed divine image-bearer, a state of, to use Moltmann's term, 'being-in-relationship'.

In conclusion

Pastoral care in a postmodern culture will inevitably meet with individuals, families and communities in need whose lives are variously affected by strands of the premodern and modern, as well as the postmodern. Pastoral sensitivity is needed in seeking to help others disentangle those strands of cultural setting that may ensnare them, whether it is the obscurantism and superstition that is the flip-side of a trust in Providence in premodernity, or the quest for autonomy and an arrogant knowingness that is the shadow of the modern thirst for Progress. It is where a postmodern mindset and lifestyle is pulled towards the nihilistic and relativistic that pastoral care can aim to help the needy rediscover 'story' and so find a fresh sense of identity as a 'being-in-relationship' who can reach out and cross the boundaries in the pluralistic forest of contemporary culture.

Notes

  1. William A Clebsch and Charles R Jaekle, Pastoral Care in Historical Perspective (New York: Jaaon Aronson, 1975), p.69

2. Jonathan Culler, On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism After Structuralism (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1982), p. 149, quoted in Susan Hekman, Gender and Knowledge: Elements of a Postmodern Feminism (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1990), p.4.

3. See Roger Lundin, The Culture of Interpretation: Christian Faith and the Post-Modern World (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993)

4. Quoted in Richard Foster, Prayer: Finding the Heart's True Home (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1992), p.177

5. See Anthony Giddens, Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991).

Roger Hurding's latest book Pathways to Wholeness: pastoral care in a postmodern age was reviewed in newsletter no.27. Various items listed in ACCESS U.K. address postmodernity, including nos 2,46,62,66 and 96.

Comment

Talking about my generation

"I take full responsibility for the fact that my generation complained about the state of the planet and did nothing to change it." Pete Townshend of The Who.

I belong, more or less, to Pete Townshend’s generation. I’m talking about my generation, Tony Blair’s generation and Gordon Brown’s generation. We are a generation of idealists. We thought that there was a Third Way. Some of us, who were fired by the power and radicalism of the values of the Kingdom of God, wanted to be Christian Socialists. We believed in simple lifestyle, in standing for the poor, in changing the world by being different and by making a difference.

Where did it all go wrong? Three years into the life of a New Labour government, with all its Christian Socialist idealism and its promises about a better Britain, what has changed? There is a general perception that very little has changed. The power of Big Money, and the brutal assertion of the profit motive right across our society, seems if anything to be growing by the day. Barclays Bank with cold-hearted zeal closes rural branches where loyal customers have banked for decades. The world, we are told, needs a Big Bank; not a bank that cares about small customers in out-of-the-way places.

It does seem as though Tony Blair’s idealism is proving to be sadly lacking in substance. Maybe I will yet be proved wrong. But Pete Townshend’s comment seems very timely and pertinent to me. It’s not enough to be an idealist. My generation complained about the state of the planet and thought that we could do things better. But at the end of the day we have to be willing to live the values of the Kingdom. People like Francis of Assisi and Mother Teresa have made a difference by being willing to live like Jesus. Unfortunately many in my generation have wanted to have it both ways, to have our cake and eat it. We wanted to be radical, to live The Beatitudes and be on the side of the poor and the oppressed. But we also want the good things of life. We believe in wealth creation, and we are all too easily seduced by what this world has to offer. It is a struggle I personally live with every day, as in the back of my mind I think about the next car that I would like to buy. I can hear Jesus saying, "Take care, and be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions" (Luke 12:15). And even more trenchantly, "You cannot serve God and wealth" (Matt. 6:24).

Ian Cowley

Said before

It is impossible that God should ever be the end, if He is not the beginning. We lift our eyes on high, but lean upon the sand…

Blaise Pascal,

Pensees 488

 

Streams of reflection:

‘Ressourcement' in the Catholic Church

Paul McPartlan

'Ressourcement' or 'return to the sources' has nourished a renewal of theology in the 20th century within the Catholic Church, in fresh engagement with the critical issues of our time and culture. The 'ressourcement' book series published currently by T&T Clark and Eerdmans express this renewal particularly in the spirit of Henri de Lubac and Hans Urs von Balthasar. Paul McPartlan introduces the movement.

Pope John Paul II has made nearly a hundred international trips as Pope. Most recent and perhaps most memorable was his pilgrimage to the Holy Land in March 2000, when he placed a paper in the Western Wall asking forgiveness from the Jews for sins committed against them by Christians. These visits, and the defence of the human rights of all people everywhere that has frequently been a part of them, have been one of the most striking features of his pontificate. If the inspiration for these bold initiatives comes ultimately from the Holy Spirit, the historical manifesto that the Pope is implementing is that of the Second Vatican Council, and especially of its final and most ground-breaking text, known by its opening words in Latin, Gaudium et Spes. As Archbishop of Cracow, the present Pope was one of the drafters of this decisive document in 1964-65.

The full opening sentence of the document is as follows: ‘The joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the people of our time, especially of those who are poor or afflicted in any way, are the joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the followers of Christ as well.’ This resounding expression of solidarity between the Church and the world sets the tone for all that follows. It signals an end to the aloofness that had characterised the Catholic Church’s relationship to the world in recent times. Joseph Komonchak uses stronger language when he says that Catholic theology had got itself into ‘a state of emigration or exile from the modern cultural world’ in the century or so prior to Vatican II (‘Theology and Culture at Mid-Century’, Theological Studies 51[1990], p.579)*. His article is subtitled: ‘The Example of Henri de Lubac’, because in it he salutes the French jesuit theologian, Henri de Lubac, as one of the foremost pioneers of the emergence of the Catholic Church from this exile at Vatican II. De Lubac was also a drafter of Gaudium et Spes.

De Lubac himself was in a sort of ‘internal exile’ between 1950 and 1960, forbidden to teach because of the controversy his research and writings had caused. But then new Pope John XXIII nominated him to help prepare for the Council that he had summoned in order to refresh and update the life and teaching of the Catholic Church. Instead of being a citadel in the world, the Catholic Church came to see itself at the Council as a ‘sacrament of salvation’ for the world. De Lubac had advocated an understanding of the Church as ‘sacrament’ as early as 1938 in his first book, Catholicism, new editions of which are still being published, testifying to its enduring vigour and vision. De Lubac’s long life (1896-1991; named a Cardinal in 1983) is a fascinating and instructive one (c.f. my books The Eucharist Makes the Church, 1993; and Sacrament of Salvation, 1995). In this brief space, however, we focus upon him as perhaps the prime exponent of the ‘ressourcement’, or return to the sources, that characterised Vatican II and continues as a vital programme in the modern Catholic Church.

The sources intended here are threefold, namely the Bible, the Liturgy and the Fathers of the Church. One of Vatican II’s four key documents, called ‘Constitutions’, was on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum), and in it the Council taught that the faithful are fed in the Liturgy not only by the Body of Christ but also by the Word of God, as from ‘one table’ (DV 21), and that study of the Scriptures should be the ‘soul’ of theology (DV 24). It reiterated the words of St Jerome: ‘Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ’ (DV 25). This latter is just one of almost countless examples of a renewed appreciation of the teaching of the Fathers evident in the vast number of patristic citations in the documents of Vatican II. De Lubac himself appended about fifty patristic extracts to Catholicism, as a first attempt to remedy the lack of readily accessible texts at that time. In 1941 he inaugurated a lasting remedy in the form of the series of complete patristic texts, Sources Chrétiennes, which he directed with Jean Daniélou. This series has been a major resource and is still going strong: it recently published its four hundredth volume! Daniélou was another drafter of Gaudium et Spes.

The first Constitution of Vatican II was on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium), in which the Council taught that the ‘full and active participation’ of all the faithful, as a priestly people, in the Church’s liturgy is ‘the primary and indispensable source from which the faithful are to derive the true Christian spirit’ (SC 14). The Council anchored the whole life of the Catholic Church once again in the worship of God, especially in the celebration of the Eucharist. Invoking St Ignatius of Antioch it taught that 'the principle manifestation of the Church' is to be found in the eucharistic gathering of a local community around their bishop. In many ways, the most famous Constitution of Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, on the Church, can be seen as working out the dogmatic implications of this liturgical vision. Thereby the principle coined by de Lubac in 1944, ‘the Eucharist makes the Church’, was embraced and interpreted.

The Eucharist, of course, ends with a dismissal. A eucharistic Church understands itself to be sent out into the world by the very celebration that gives it life. Mission is fundamental to it, so fundamental, indeed, that Vatican II’s text on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, clearly identified as a ‘Pastoral’ document, was itself accorded the status of a ‘Constitution’. The Archbishop of Cracow was a champion of that designation, and he has frequently repeated as Pope the sentence that occurs at the start of Gaudium et Spes 22, expressing the conviction that drives Christians out into the world to share the good news: ‘it is only in the mystery of the Word made flesh that the mystery of man truly becomes clear’.

These words follow one of de Lubac’s favourite quotations from St Augustine: ‘You have made us, Lord, for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you’ (GS 21), and emphasise that every human heart is restless, because all are called ‘to one and the same destiny, which is divine’ (GS 22). The greatest battle de Lubac fought in the 1940s was to show, against the prevailing neo-scholasticism of the time, that this was the authentic teaching, not only of Augustine, but also of St Thomas Aquinas. The prevailing theory of ‘pure nature’ envisaged a purely natural end for human beings unless God calls us specially to something higher, the beatific vision. De Lubac diagnosed this wretched theory as the root cause of the Church’s alienation from the world and exposed it as a travesty of Aquinas’ doctrine. We see how the Council vindicated his painstaking work to clarify and uphold a vital element of the authentic, ancient but ever new and challenging Tradition of Christian belief and understanding.

That Tradition has one ultimate source, namely Christ himself (cf DV 2,7,9,10), but it flows from the Scriptures and the Liturgy, indeed from the Scriptures in the Liturgy, and unites the Church’s greatest teachers through the ages, from the time of the Fathers to the present day. By renewing their contact with the Scriptures, the Liturgy and the Fathers, ‘ressourcement’ aims to enable the faithful to drink deeply from the wells of the Saviour himself.

Note: *Joseph Komonchak's key article is listed in the current ACCESS Supplement.

Further reading

Readers looking for more discussion of Oliver O'Donovan's The Desire of the Nations (see newsletters 26 and 27) may be interested to know that Studies in Christian Ethics, Vol.11 No.2 (T&T Clark, 1998) contains responses to this book by ten scholars including Stanley Hauerwas, Richard Neuhaus and Christopher Rowland, together with a reply by O'Donovan.

 

Book review

Community, Liberalism and Christian Ethics, David Fergusson, Cambridge University Press, 1998

One of the most striking, developments in recent Christian ethics has been the rise of interest in the communal and ecclesial dimensions of Christian moral formation. Inspired especially by Alasdair MacIntyre and Stanley Hauerwas, this 'turn to community' opposes itself to individualist, universalist liberalism, claiming instead that moral understanding is gained through commitment to the standards and practices of particular ethical traditions.

In this contribution to the New Studies in Christian Ethics series, David Fergusson, who is Professor of Systematic Theology at Aberdeen, provides a good, sympathetic and readable overview of this development and the debates it has provoked. He defends two principal theses. First, tradition-grounded epistemology need not lead either to relativism or to a rejection of all extra-ecclesial moral understanding: here he makes an effective use of Karl Barth to show that there are good theological reasons for holding together Christian moral distinctiveness and the recognition of moral insight outside the Church - by contrast with Hauerwas whom he faults for an oversimplified contrast between Church and world. Second, he argues that an emphasis on community need not be a covert legitimation of authoritarianism or intolerance: thus MacIntyre, despite his coyness about the political implications of his thought, could on non-liberal grounds still acknowledge the values of tolerance, pluralism and respect for persons.

The book also includes a valuable discussion of the post-liberalism of George Lindbeck and a helpful (if not entirely integrated) account of recent work on moral realism in analytical philosophy, which Fergusson rightly notes has received scant attention to date from Christian ethicists. His conclusion that different moral and religious traditions share sufficient common ground to sustain public values requires more nuancing, as does his espousal of state neutrality. But in general his defence of a critical and yet positive attitude of the Church towards political authority will rightly appeal to many of those attracted towards, but not entirely seduced by, ecclesial ethics.

Robert Song

This issue's contributors

David Fergusson is presently Professor at the University of Aberdeen; from September he will be Professor of Divinity at the University of Edinburgh

Roger Hurding is an author and part-time lecturer in Pastoral Studies at Trinity College, Bristol

Paul McPartlan is a priest in the Catholic Diocese of Westminster. He teaches systematic theology at Heythrop College in the University of London

Ian Cowley is Rector of All Saints, Milton, and author of 'Going Empty-handed'

Robert Song teaches theology in the University of Durham

 

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Newsletter 29 (Autumn '00)

Lost Icons

Murray Rae

Rowan Williams, Anglican Archbishop of Wales, latest book is Lost Icons: Reflections on Cultural Bereavement (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2000, 190pp.) Murray Rae reflects on it.

Reading one's own culture is never an easy task, for most of us are so deeply immersed within our cultures that we do not sense the relativity of our convictions, nor recognise, except retrospectively, the tectonic movements at the foundations of our cultural practices which radically change their character and shape. Most of us, therefore, have need of guidance - have need, that is, of the kind of wisdom and insight that penetrates to the deep levels of our cultural identity and uncovers there the assumptions and beliefs, and failures of belief, that reveal who we really are. Readers of these pages are used to receiving such guidance from Lesslie Newbigin. The Gospel and Our Culture Network sprang up precisely because of the perceptiveness of Newbigin's reading of our Western culture. Such perceptiveness is also to be found in Lost Icons, the recently published work of Archbishop Rowan Williams. Although quite different in style from Newbigin's writings, Williams too is concerned to bring to our attention some of the ways in which Western culture is changing at the most fundamental level. Lost Icons is a lament. It argues that certain patterns of thought and modes of understanding are being eroded, and precisely through that erosion we are losing ourselves. We are losing the means to understand and shape our identity and personhood, most particularly, Williams argues, because of a failure to appreciate that the formation of identity takes time.

Arguing this theme through four chapters Williams considers in turn childhood and choice, charity, remorse, and the idea of the soul. Each of these may be seen as an icon, 'a structure for seeing and connecting' which, I think Williams would contend, has some claim to be 'intrinsic to human welfare and sense'. Thus, in considering childhood and choice, for instance, Williams argues that contemporary culture is losing a sense of what is involved in childhood. Educational policy, for instance, typically manifests an impatience with childhood. We are eager to socialise, to impart skills, to press the child into adult or pseudo-adult roles as soon as possible - all of this under a particular conception of how persons should be shaped for the contemporary world and much of it ignoring the fact that children must be allowed time to experiment, to play, to be free of adult responsibilities and to do things and make utterances that they don't have to be answerable for. This is not a liberal appeal to let children be a law unto themselves (ironically, that is very often our society's notion of adulthood); rather it is an insistence that children are not adults and must therefore be given time to try out projects and identities in the interests of their learning. Language formation is a good example of what Williams means here. Children's linguistic communication is riddled with 'mistakes' and yet the freedom granted to them to make such mistakes is precisely the freedom within which language and communication are learned. It would be absurd to pedantically correct every childhood error of speech. And yet, Williams seems to be saying, we are inclined to such absurdity in many of the other ways in which we raise our children. The 'correction' of children's writers like Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl, for instance, according to a standard determined by adult sensibilities is a case in point. There may be, in these instances and others, an adult impatience with alternative worlds which are not 'real', and thus, in their suppression, a denial to children of the possibility of imagining alternatives to the world as adults have determined it shall be.

Another instance of the loss of childhood is the perception of the child as a consumer, willingly indulged by children themselves, of course. If the child is a consumer, Williams points out, he or she is an economic subject, targeted by advertising, but without the opportunity to recognise how economic activity commits and limits you. Equally the child is made into a sexual subject and we are quickly losing our sense that there is such a thing as sexual latency which ought to be protected 'if sexual maturation is in any way to keep step with the whole process of imaginative maturation'. In all of this Williams is arguing that 'children need to be kept free of the pressure to make adult choices if they are ever to learn how to make adult choices' (p.27). The formation of identity must be allowed to take time. His further reflections on the implications of this for childhood education are richly deserving of our consideration.

Charity and remorse are two further 'icons' of which our society is increasingly bereft. By 'charity' here, Williams means what it used to mean, that is, the state of Christian love in which one was bound to others in the community, and the love of God in both directions. It is within this context of charity that identity could be shaped over time, and the loss of such bonding is in part responsible for the fragmentation and loss of cohesion so very evident in the contemporary world. Equally critical, so far as Williams is concerned, is the loss of charitable space within which there may be freedom to question the self, to change and grow, to be to others something other than the ready-formed image of a competitor in a place without commitments.

Remorse, similarly, is a concept which takes seriously the formation of persons over time. 'To say that one of our major cultural bereavements is remorse is to raise the question of whether we are still capable of seeing failure or betrayal as inner and personal wounds, injuries to a person's substance' (p.97). We prefer instead to treat our mistakes as temporary aberrations which quickly pass and have no impact upon who we are. The debate over President Clinton's sexual misdemeanours offers a revealing picture of whether or not we think one's behaviour in a supposedly private realm is relevant to one's fitness for a public role. The verdict, finally, seems to have been that it is not. But of course, the obsessive and unscrupulous attention of political opponents and the media continues to insist for something vastly remote from good moral reasons, that it is. A more recent example of our difficulty with the concept of remorse is provided by the recent spectre of a contestant evicted from Channel Four's 'Big Brother' House because of cheating. 'It's only a game' he insisted, clearly wishing to imply that his cheating reveals nothing about his character. A curious feature of the public attention given to this episode was that the contestant was dubbed 'Nasty Nick'. The viewing public willingly embraced the notion that our mistakes do disclose and impact upon our identity - and in this case they wanted a villain - while in every consideration of our own mistakes we admit such a correlation much more reluctantly. A failure of remorse, however, by which is not meant the passing embarrassment of having been found out, is perceptively recognised by Williams, not only as a failure in self-understanding, but also as a failure to see the nature of our relationality with others. Even his eviction from the house, the severing of relations with his co-participants in this (obscenely contrived) effort at community, didn't seem to furnish Nick with the capacity to recognise the relational damage wrought through his actions. The episode bears out Williams' point: remorse occurs, in contrast, 'when there is a sense of the implication of my self with the other...' (p. 129).

The final chapter of William's book is concerned with souls. The religious connotation here is deliberate for Williams wants through the language of the soul to make explicit a conception of the self as relational, as existing in 'a relation with an agency which addresses or summons the self' and which may be seen as the source of the self's life. Of course, the term 'soul' will not communicate all this to the contemporary world without further explanation, but it is precisely Williams' point that because none of the 'icons' he presents to us are readily understood any longer, we are increasingly bereft of both the conceptual and the linguistic resources which are essential to the formation and sustenance of personal identity.
It is in the context of his talk about souls that Williams introduces, finally, his claim that, alongside the other losses to which he has drawn attention, we have lost too the recognition that humanity lives in relation to an 'Other'. Yes, of course! I agree! And yet here, I have a question about time myself - or more particularly about timing. Why does this 'Other' make so late an appearance in the book? Is this an apologetic strategy? Is there an effort here, in the earlier chapters, and even in the last, to speak a language inoffensive to Williams' hoped for secular readers? That may work but it is very risky - risky because if the 'Other' really is important then any effort to speak about ourselves without reference to the Other will likely be a distortion and/or curtailment of the reality with which we are concerned. That, I think, is what Williams too wants to say, but are not childhood and choice and charity and remorse equally in need of theological elucidation in order for their iconic function properly to be exercised? Why the theological silence to begin with?

I am anxious too, in a book concerned with how we may become persons, about the de-personalising of God. Language about an 'Other' is abstract, perhaps applicable to but certainly not naming the God who is named, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. If God is in any way to help us be persons, then the possibilities for personal engagement with him - articulated in admittedly obscure shorthand in the doctrine of the Trinity - must surely be made explicit and elucidated. I accept Williams' proper caution about the dangers of theological speech, so often simply a means of legitimating a bid for power, but must we not find ways to speak of God which invite trusting relationship with him? Again, I think, Williams would agree, and so my quarrel with him concerns strategy rather than intent. I will be delighted if what is written in Lost Icons, turns out to be, as Williams hopes, 'accessible to those who do not share the theological position from which [he] begin[s]', but I wonder whether in admitting that 'much more would need to be said about how religious conceptualities relate to what has been said' (p.183) Williams has not identified rather too important a task to be left virtually unaddressed in the present work.

Williams' reflections in Lost Icons are too dense and richly insightful to permit of easy summary in a review such as this. The anxieties I have expressed above are not intended to detract from the book's wisdom. Lost Icons is a reading of our culture which will help us to negotiate a way forward that is more deeply appreciative of those iconic resources which are 'intrinsic to human welfare and sense'. It is especially thought-provoking for those who are aware that the vicissitudes of culture are related to and must be understood in terms of presuppositions, beliefs, and losses of belief which lie, often unrecognised, deep below the surface.

Interpreting the Dome

As a visitor from New Zealand I had heard a huge amount about the Dome. But just about the politics of the place; about its content and its meaning, very little. So, having been given tickets, I went, not knowing what to expect.

Quite simply, it was a step into another world - a fantasy world; but a fantasy about the world which contemporary people hope we will soon inhabit. It wasn't a trade show; it wasn't a fun park, although everything was presented as fun. What was it? It was - I believe this is precisely how the makers saw it - a kind of gigantic exercise in information awareness, of inspiration from the direction of our brave new world.

This is what all the entertainment was for. It came to me gazing at a Gerald Scarfe cartoon statue, a grotesque character slouched before a television, slowly overwhelmed by the carpet growing over him. The Dome was an exercise in public morality. It was a cathedral to contemporary values - values that we were being coerced into enjoying.

And the aim was altered attitudes. At the end of the fascinating Journey Zone, avoiding the little lecture I sat down in front of a screen to which I revealed that I was a cyclist. Immediately a video lecture informed me of the needs of cyclists and what was being done for them and what more was needed. Then came the moment of commitment. I could have said 'not today please', but instead I committed myself to ride my bicycle form all journeys of less than two kilometres. And there was a lot more of the same.

In the faith Zone we were invited to write a message for the millennium. I know the message we need to hear. It is not that the world can just be redesigned according to our chosen 'values'; that is a mistake. But somehow there we were, the followers of Christ, with what we had to say dully packaged, amidst so many cases of the emperor's new clothes - afraid to 'preach' amidst enough political re-education to leave one exhausted!

Peter Lineham

 

Returning to a Strange Land

David Frost

In the late sixties and seventies, prior to my departure for Australia and a Chair of English Literature, teaching at Cambridge brought me into contact with some of the leaders of the student revolutionary movement.

Their hoped-for alliance of students with workers had been rejected. They therefore resolved, in the fight against capitalism and an authoritarian patriarchy that was held to underpin it, to form a new alliance with those currently sidelined: with women, children, homosexuals, and others marginalized by belief or practice.

I recall them identifying three targets: an educational establishment founded on respect for authority and the handing on of received wisdom; a Christian Church committed to traditional moral values; and, finally, that major prop of the status quo, the nuclear family.

Their plan for breaking down such old rigidities was to capture the means of communication: to infiltrate television, radio, newspapers and publishing houses, universities and schools. The future would be assured by challenging current content and methods of education and by propagating revolutionary views through the capture of teaching positions, educational bureaucracies and professional unions.

What astonishes me on my return to Britain after twenty-two years is how far the objectives of my pupils have been attained. Not of course that the revolutionaries had much hand in what occurred: other forces and factors have brought about many of the changes they proposed, though by the means which they then advocated. Nor was capitalism destroyed: achievement of secondary objectives has merely weakened the natural critics of capitalism's more inhuman and un-Christian aspects. But the net result is that the Britain of the third millennium strikes as a significantly less Christian country than the one I left.

The social changes seem much to do with governments that for twenty years promoted self-interest as a civic virtue. The numbers of beggars and those sleeping on the streets is a shock, unimagined twenty-two years ago - a sign of the increasing gulf between rich and poor and of an alienation and unhappiness that have created a substantial under-class. I am told that the notion of a company's responsibility to its staff or of that staff's loyalty to its employer is laughably antiquated. I find myself assaulted on all sides by the smug jargon of Mammon: 'market forces', 'economic realities', 'user pays', 'clients and providers' (even in the areas of education and religion). It seems widely agreed that it is foolish to attempt by central planning to promote a national good. The country appears more naïve about the efficacy of unfettered competition and privatisation that are my recent hosts, the post-communist mainland Chinese. Hardly surprising, therefore, that those of us who teach the young report an increasing lack of idealism and altruism, a pervasive cynicism about human relationships, and a dreadful hopelessness.

Newspaper reports of an erosion of Christian values and an ever-increasing decline in church membership are supported by my own experience or students, whose knowledge of Christian fundamentals, declining two decades back, is now almost non-existent. That one half of marriages are said to end in divorce, that the number of unmarried mothers and one parent families increases, that Britain has one of the highest levels of drug abuse, that clinical depression is set to become a medical problem second only to cancer are symptoms of social sickness and human breakdown - but where is the Christian critique and remedy?

It would be unjust to suggest that a Christian case is not being made: the problem is that it is not being heard. Lesslie Newbigin's efforts in the last two decades of his life at 'genuinely missionary encounter' with Western culture were at least as challenging as the witness of C S Lewis to my own generation. But my impression is that Newbigin largely found his publishers overseas and commanded little of the attention, promotion and distribution accorded to Lewis in his day.

Christians have neglected the strategies that my pupils thought essential to the success of their aims. We have not, by and large, captured the means of communication: televisions, radio, news- papers, publishing houses. Hence, a returner to Britain after twenty years finds himself bombarded with material that is not only ignorant about Christianity (in this area, at least, I detect a marked 'dumbing down') but is actively hostile to Christian doctrine and values, promoting materialism, trivialization and a self-regarding hedonism.

Worse, we now have a generation of students who have picked up, both from the media and from their educators, that to be Christian is somehow to be 'naff'. This has much to do with the promotion in universities of Franco-American 'Theory', which in its dominant forms denies transcendence or any notion of the soul, condemns belief in a continuing human nature as 'essentialism', treats human personality as a social construct, and is radically sceptical about the possibility of meaning and value. If Christians survive such a climate, and later attempt to fulfil the traditional role of humanities graduates as educators and critics, their witness is inevitably unconfident, maimed.

Attempts to mount a Christian challenge will continue inept till we master the strategy of our opponents. The 'decade of evangelism' has collapsed. Those millennium celebrations I met on my return showed much of England uninterested in celebrating Christianity - and the 'prayer' agreed by the Churches omitted Christ. Yet our consultations on mission, reform of worship and doctrine, on ethics and social values, discussion papers and reports, go blithely on. The ship is sinking, with a fascinating conference of theologians still on its sundeck, and the problems unaddressed.

Said before

The Kingdom of Evil is idolatry, so organised by hypocrisy that that it is able to set itself up as the true order of the world.… Nor did this idolatry ever erect a ritual so imposing as the material conquests of the present order of competition with its vast mechanical equipment; nor was it ever so much taken at its face value as when thus enormously staged; nor has society ever been set by it on a more selfish foundation or been so robbed of the true uses of the world; nor has it ever issued in vaster destruction

(John Oman, Grace and Personality, 1917)

Culture snips

'Working for a safe, just and tolerant society', declared the Home Office's logo on a pamphlet. We might watch the word 'safe' with interest: like 'healthy', it promises a seemingly non-judgmental metaphor in the hands of secular moral/pc agendas. In the 1990's, the New Zealand Nursing Council pioneered a course teaching cross-cultural sensitivity in nursing practice. The course, which made up 20% of nurse training, was called 'Cultural Safety', and generated controversy on more than one occasion when a trainee nurse was failed as 'culturally unsafe'.

 

Local Initiatives

Court Oak Gospel and Culture Forum

Matthew Baynham

Local Gospel & culture groups can bring together Christians facing contemporary culture within a range of secular and ministry settings. Matthew Baynham is co-chairman of such a group. He tells us about it here.

Court Oak Gospel and Culture Forum is a group of friends who support each other in their very varied encounter with modern culture. The group consists, at present, of a GP, a psychiatrist, a teacher, an author, a PR officer, a hostel warden, two church ministers, a genetics researcher, an economist, and three academics whose fields are philosophy, Anglo-Saxon life and literature, and modern church history. Members are based in Birmingham, Nottingham, Leicester and Oxford. It is good, though more or less accidental, that we cover the whole range of churches from Roman Catholic to Community Church.

For us, as for many thinking Christians, Lesslie Newbigin's later writings struck a vital chord. Lesslie offered the possibility of the recovery of an orthodox Christian mind in which the things of faith were not relegated either to the private realm or to the outskirts of serious thing, but rather integrated into one potentially public rationality.

In this respect, we were probably no different from the many people to whom Lesslie's work made appeal. We had the advantage, however, in our co-chairman Doug Gallaher, of someone who fully shares Lesslie's passion for these issues and who has a particular genius for networking - a genius which essentially consists of taking pains with friendship.

We were privileged that Lesslie formed a personal relationship with Doug and with the group in the last ten years of his life. When our friendships evolved into a more formal grouping, it was from Lesslie's work that we took the 'Gospel and Culture' part of our name.

Our work, family and church schedules are such that membership of the group entails real sacrifices of time. Living so far apart, the whole group can only sensibly meet for a whole day, which must be a Saturday, Sunday or holiday. It would be impossible, were we not committed to one another in friendship and committed to the importance of the gospel and culture task. Meetings discuss issues arising from our own fields, relevant books, and plan an increasing number of group joint projects.

Thus far, these have mostly consisted of conferences for wider consumption, bringing together speakers life Lesslie himself; Nigel Swinford, Director of the New English Orchestra; the author Heather Ward; Gordon Bailey, Director of Schools Outreach and groundbreaking educationalist Steve Gallaher. We have good links with St John's Church, Harborne, Birmingham, which has offered us a venue for these wider events, and a large pool of people to invite to them.

The Forum now seems to be moving into slightly more of this more public work. We shall be organising more conferences and lectures over the next eighteen months. We have two communal and a number of individual publishing projects in hand. We would very much value a little corner in your prayers, as we try to find the time and money to put these things together.

Academically, we tend to think of ourselves as a 'middle ground' organisation. Individual members of the group do make published contributions at the higher levels of their own fields; but our mission seems to be to encourage those ordinary Christians like ourselves who seek a rationally integrated, orthodox Christian, approach to serious topics in all fields. We hope and expect that our experience will encourage those other Christian groups who are already doing similar things to ourselves, as well as a number of people who would like, but feel they do not have, a forum in which to discuss their encounter with our culture.

Our experience is that if you care enough, there are little things that you can do. If enough of us do them, perhaps they will become bigger things. That is why we so much welcome the relaunching of the national Gospel and our Culture Network and wish it every possible success.

When we had finished the Agenda at our most recent meeting, I asked the assembled members to tell us what they were working on at present. Heather Ward's Carmelite group is organising a half-day retreat at Nottingham Roman Catholic cathedral; Kevin Vaughan is leading the Christian Medical Fellowship's struggle to ensure equal opportunities for doctors who exercise their legal choice not to perform abortions; Tom Hartman is preparing a major paper on genetically modified organisms; Paul Cavill (whilst writing three books) is also co-organising a conference for Christian teachers of Anglo-Saxon; Doug Gallaher is putting together a series of three concerts with the theme 'Salvation' at the Barber Institute of fine Arts in Birmingham; Sue Cavill is helping the YMCA think through the public presentation of its housing policy; Andy Swinford has put the novel on hold while he designs the web page of the Christian Writers Association (www.christianwriters.org.uk).

Could you join with others to form a gospel and culture group in your own locality?

Book Reviews

Choices at the Heart of Technology: A Christian Perspective, Ruth Conway, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 1999

From Complicity to Encounter: The Church and the Culture of Economism, Jane Collier and Raphael Esteban Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 1998

These are two good worldview books. They take major, even dominant themes, in contemporary life and subject them to Christian vision. Great juggernauts of contemporary culture are taken off the road and put on the ramp for examination. Why has the Christian community not always done this? Ruth Conway's book peels back from the technologists' self intoxicated fixation on what can be done to consider what should be done. She insists on locating technological choice in the reality of life normed by God, on cutting technology down to size, on dethroning the idol.

It is a revelation to see that this view of technology is practical. It works and also shows how silly we are. We actually thought that anti-personnel mines (does the term not warn us?) were good technology; we think about the fitness for purpose, but what about the fitness of purpose? Why do we think it is a good thing to blow people's legs off? We design estates that we cannot happily live on, and know that our lives were better then than they are now in privatised car dominated domestic citadels. We can put ourselves, not cars or system builders, first and properly see technologies as our servants. This is the right way to see things. It would be good for us.

But they are not our servants as selfish individualists, but as those who love God and our neighbour and submit to God's good ways and justice. Here Ruth Conway presses the arrogance of power and self-serving into the gentle and humble choices which mark the government of God, allowing freedom for the other. This is what should be technologically victorious and, urges Ruth, with St Paul, "let the Spirit direct our course". Why not?

Jane Collier and Raphael Estaban see Economism as a cultural package which ideologically supports the primacy of the economic in life, and sees markets as a "theory of everything". Surely, they have their finger on the pulse, because you have markets in bodies, embryos, deadly weapons and winning votes. This is a god, and "it", or our worship of it (because it is still the work of our hands) is eating us alive, controlling and shaping life.

Here I have two demurring comments. First, we must see the enemy clearly, and I am not sure it is one enemy, a single great system. There are business, the consumer and the financier. They collude, by supplying credit, through advertising, through work and shopping, but their interests and commitments are also different. I suspect that Economism as a single target does not allow real focus, that we need sharper economics.

Jane Collier and Rafael Esteban also focus on the Church, particularly the Catholic Church, as being in complicity with Economism. Is this true? Is the collection box rattling, one priest do it all, economically backward church which can't sell raffle tickets really complying with Economism. I do not think that is the problem. The problem is with a Church which has been economically inarticulate for several centuries, apart from the occasional encyclical. Both of these books begin to change that.

Short notices

Peter Barrett, Science and Theology Since Copernicus (approx 200pp, pb) is due publication this month by Unisa Press (fax South Africa 12-429-3051). 'Peter Barrett gives us a fascinating and detailed account of the history of the interaction between science and theology and provides an assessment of the contemporary situation. This is a book that many will find helpful'. John Polkinghorne

Robert Short's bestseller The Gospel According to Peanuts has been reissued in a 35th anniversary, larger format edition by Westminster John Knox Press. Here is humour that probes our condition, humour in which Robert Short is able to point to prophetic meaning.

 

Religion as a Market Offering

'Economisation' and its narrative are today replacing the grand narratives of modernity, according to Lieven Boeve. When market narrative integrates life, it upholds pluralism by making everything equal: every aspect of life becomes a market good, subject to the arbitrary private choice of the consumer.

Boeve describes how religion gets pushed into this mould by the media and by its attention to religious controversy. 'Polarising news items are… not only good for newspaper circulation, for listener and viewer ratings, but also for the levelling out of authority and any sense of values. Eventually, the winner is the primacy of arbitrariness, relativism and, thus, the market… Matters of truth and value appear purely individual and subjective, never transgressing the bounds of private arbitrariness. Consequently, the discussion between culture and religion begins to function like the discussion between the primacy of arbitrariness and the inviolable authority of religious claims to truth and morality. In the market-oriented public forum, this is a fight that religion cannot win. The narrative of the market thus succeeds in a twofold way. Not only does the discussion provide sensational reading, listening and viewing matter for consumption, but at the same time the orientation potential which the Christian religion can also offer in our culture further caves in as well.

Reprinted with the permission of the author from Theology, Jan/Feb.1999. For Lieven Boeve's full article see ACCESS U.K. no.151)

Discrimination: which way round?

In November the Government will be asked to sign an EU Employment Directive affecting the freedom of Christian churches and organisations, when selecting their staff, to take into account their beliefs and values. It will become illegal to require staff to be practicing Christians. Various Christians groups have petitioned for amendments to the Directive. The Government has agreed to seek amendments to protect the position of Church Schools, but not to meet other concerns.

Further information can be obtained on the Internet from, for example, the website of the Christian Insititute: christian.org.uk/eurothreat.html, or the website of CARE: care.org.uk/resource/docs/response_employ.htm.

The EU Directive raises the question whether we can take it for granted that the developing formalisation of public life is necessarily compatible with religious freedom. Of course we shall not want to be guilty of what Employment Minister Tessa Jowell has called 'bigotry dressed up as religious necessity'. But neither can we acquiesce with a state of affairs in which we are required to behave in all ways as if our faith were a private choice, to be suppressed whenever we act in any of the areas of legislated 'public' life which spread year by year.

Again, more on such matters in future newsletters...

 

This issue's contributors

Murray Rae is a Lecturer in Theology at Kings College, University of London, and Secretary of the Management Council of the Gospel and Our Culture network

David Frost is Professor Emeritus of English Literature of the University of Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia. He is well known among Anglicans for his part in composing the Alternative Service Book, 1980.

Matthew Baynham is Chaplain at Bishop Grosseteste College, Lincoln, and a member of the Management Council of the Gospel and Our Culture network

Peter Lineham is a Lecturer in History at Massey University, Albany Campus, New Zealand, and a member of the International Executive Committee of IFES.

Alan Storkey is an author and Lecturer in Sociology at Oak Hill Theological College

Liewen Boeve is a part-time professor in the Theology Faculty of the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium

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