Newsletter 48 (Spring 2007)

History, Memory and the Bicentenary of Abolition

John Coffey

The bicentenary of the abolition of the British slave trade in 2007 will differ markedly from the centenary of 1907. A hundred years ago, the anniversary was a cause for unalloyed celebration. The abolition of 1807 and Parliament’s subsequent decision in 1833 to end slavery itself was widely acclaimed as the nation’s finest hour. In his History of European Morals, W. E. H. Lecky famously declared that the British crusade against slavery ‘may very probably be regarded as among the three or four perfectly virtuous acts recorded in the history of nations’.

            In 2007, national pride and self-congratulation are less acceptable. Historians like Linda Colley remind us that the British were ‘the world’s greediest and most successful traders of slaves’. British ships transported over three million Africans across the Atlantic. Conditions during the ‘middle passage’ were so bad that as many as 450,000 slaves died before reaching the Americas. The bicentenary must involve solemn commemoration, not mere celebration. In contrast to a century ago, the descendants of black slaves now have a public voice, one that calls for apologies and even reparations and emphasises the terrible legacy of centuries of enslavement. Liverpool City Council has apologised for the port city’s deep involvement in the trade, and is opening an International Slavery Museum; English Heritage has announced that it will investigate links between its properties and the slave trade; and the Prime Minister has expressed ‘deep sorrow’ at Britain’s involvement.

            Even the abolitionists themselves are not immune from criticism. Books like The Great Abolition Sham launch scathing critiques of Wilberforce and his allies. Academic historians avoid such hatchet jobs, but point out that abolitionists were not purely altruistic. By abolishing the slave trade, they sought to restore national honour, revive Christianity, and even promote the capitalist ideal of free labour. And they could be guilty of what Dickens memorably called ‘telescopic philanthropy’, focussing on the oppression of people in far off lands, but ignoring what went on at the bottom of a Yorkshire mineshaft.

            To complicate the story of abolition in this way is no bad thing. It reminds us that history is a messy process, not a simple morality tale of heroes and villains, and that human beings (even ‘saints’) are fallen creatures. And yet we are, perhaps, in danger of forgetting the enormity of the abolitionist achievement. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and it is easy now to believe that the overthrow of colonial slavery was inevitable. But if we think historically, that is far from obvious.

The Atlantic slave trade was a massive business. In the 1790s, British ships were transporting 40,000 slaves per year to the Caribbean and North America. Although the great West Indian scholar, Eric Williams, argued that the slave trade was ceasing to be profitable, most historians now disagree. If anything, profits were on the rise, and the Caribbean colonies accounted for a greater share of British trade than the United States. The abolitionists faced intense opposition from West Indian planters, British investors, the slave ports, and even members of the royal family. All the major maritime powers were engaged in slave trading, and abolition looked to be against British interests. Moreover, whilst the trade was driven by the profit motive, it was also legitimised in religious terms. Many white Christians owned black slaves and the Church of England had a major slave plantation in the Caribbean. The Bible was quoted to justify slavery and the slave trade was defended on the grounds that it brought Africans within earshot of the Gospel. Even those who condemned the slave trade often assumed that it was here to stay. Although there was much antislavery sentiment, there was no organised abolitionist movement until the 1780s. When the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade first met in London on 22 May 1787, its prospects looked dim. After all, nine of its twelve members belonged to a marginal religious sect, the Quakers.

            Yet within twenty years of that meeting in a London printing shop, the British slave trade had been abolished. Within half a century, the 800,000 slaves in the British colonies had been emancipated. By the 1880s, slavery had been extinguished in the southern United States, Brazil and across most of the earth. ‘From any historical perspective’, writes the pre-eminent historian of slavery, David Brion Davis, ‘this was a stupendous transformation’.

            Of course, the abolitionists would not have won if they had been an entirely counter-cultural force. They were able to capitalise on the bourgeois cult of sensibility and the Enlightenment rhetoric of rights and benevolence. Their cause rapidly became a fashionable one, and attracted mass support. They were helped by the sense of crisis generated by the American Revolution, which dealt a demoralising blow to British pride and prompted a quest to rehabilitate the nation’s honour. Moreover, Parliament’s eventual commitment to abolition in 1806-07 resulted from a series of political contingencies.

            Yet when all this has been said, abolition could not have happened without abolitionism. And at the very heart of the British abolitionist movement were people driven in large part by religious convictions. As Davis has written, ‘religion was the central concern of all the British abolitionist leaders’. The Quakers and the Evangelical Anglicans who came together in the 1780s were united in their hostility to nominal Christianity. In their eyes, the slave trade was the most glaring evidence of the shallowness of contemporary religion; it was an iniquity that provoked the anger of a just God. The British needed to stop paying lip service to their Christianity, they needed to live up to it – to act justly, and love mercy, and walk humbly before their God.

            We must use the bicentenary to reflect on the victims of the slave trade, Britain’s shameful role, and the complicity of the church. But there is still every reason to celebrate the abolitionists, and to learn from their achievement. Above all, they teach us to have confidence in the transformative power of the Gospel and trust in a living God who acts within history. In post-Christian Britain the idea of the Gospel as public truth is anathema to many, and the social problems confronting us are great. Christians face the temptation to lose heart and retreat. It is a good time to remember the abolitionists.

 

today, meanwhile…

·          ‘The Home Office estimates that 4,000 women are at present enslaved in the UK’ writes Carrie Pemberton, of CHASTE. ‘A report issued last year estimated that 80% of international trafficking is for sex.… The trafficking business is now worth an estimated £12 billion globally. Alterations in the law and more resources are essential if it is to be halted. There can be no better way to mark the bicentenary of the Act than to abolish the slave trade.’ (Church Times, 12 January, 2007)

·          In his last address to the WCC, in 1996, Lesslie Newbigin said: ‘I am going to raise one particular issue which I have never raised in public before and which I did not intend to raise when I came to Salvador. It is connected with the ribbon on my wrist. When we stood in the old slave market on Saturday morning on those rough stones which had held the weight of the bare and bruised and shackled feet of countless of our fellow human beings, when we stood in that place so heavy with human sin and human suffering and we were asked to spend two minutes in silence waiting for what the Spirit might say to us, I thought first how unbelievable that Christians could have connived in that inhuman trade; and then there came to my mind the questions: Will it not be the case that perhaps our great-grandchildren will be equally astonished at the way in which we in our generation, in our so-called modern, Western, rich, developed culture, connive at the wholesale slaughter of unborn children in the name of that central idol of our culture – freedom of choice? I know… that to raise (that issue) is exceedingly painful, as painful as was the struggle against the slave trade.. (but) it is simply one example of the costliness of that attempt to ensure that the gospel is not domesticated within our cultures, but continually challenges our culture.’

(Newbigin, Signs amid the Rubble, ed. Geoffrey Wainwright, Eerdmans, 2003, p.118.)

 

 

Editorial note:

When we think of those who have come to live and work in Britain from other parts of the world we tend to think of Muslims, Hindus and people of other non-Christian religions before we think of Christians. In fact, however, many immigrants are Christian. Andrew Walls writes (ACCESS 577) that our churches are called to be multicultural today: can we listen carefully to our immigrant brothers and sisters in Christ?

               Anna Thomas-Betts reminds us below that many immigrant Christians think that we English Christians and our churches are timid (Lesslie Newbigin, returning from India in the 1970’s, thought the same). They sometimes also view us as timid about asking immigrants of other religions to draw their religious views into further creative engagement with their host culture in the search for a future having consistency and integrity. These views of immigrant Christians remind us that our public culture is one which tends either to judge religious claims in terms of its own narrow ‘secular rationality’ or else to see religion as private property into which any critical engagement would be an intrusion. Our public culture tends to adopt the former approach towards Christianity and the latter approach towards immigrant culture and religion.

 

Being an immigrant Christian in Britain today

some personal reflections

Anna Thomas-Betts

The first thought that came to my mind when I heard the news item about ‘British Airways and the cross’ was a question: would I have taken as brave a stance as Miss Nadia Eweida did?  If it meant losing my livelihood, I suspect not.  But even as the question was forming in my mind, I realised it was very much a hypothetical question for me, for the following reason. 

            My formative years were spent in a community where three religions, Hindu, Christian and Muslim faiths, co-existed more or less harmoniously for centuries, with adherents in roughly equal numbers.  Everyone knew the religious affiliation of others straightaway from our names and the minor differences in appearance and attire like the bindi or the smear of sandalwood on the forehead (Hindu), the scarf around the hair (Muslim), or the way the dhoti was worn.  The dietary habits were another telltale sign – Hindus would not eat beef, Muslims shunned pork, but if you were a Christian, anything went!  At no time did I feel the need to proclaim that I was a Christian, nor for that matter, deny it.  In the last fifty years things have changed and many Christians and Hindus have similar first names now and there is a much greater uniformity in dress code also, but there are still enough small differences to distinguish a Hindu from a Muslim and so forth. 

            Clearly, Miss Eweida’s circumstances are very different.  I have read that her conversion to Christianity was costly to her and that this was one reason she wanted it to be openly acknowledged.  How many of her customers would have taken note of, or cared about, the little cross or her religious affiliation is another question altogether.  I have never in my life worn a cross as a pendant, nor felt the need to, but the stance of British Airways in the whole saga seemed to me to be plain silly.  The more serious point, however, is that it is symptomatic of an increasing lack of confidence in the country generally of its Christian heritage and the remarkable diffidence in applying even to small matters what most people would consider to be common sense. 

 

A diverse population

The immigrant Christians of this country are, of course, incredibly diverse in cultural, political and economic background, not to mention churchmanship.  So it would be rather meaningless to talk about our collective response to issues, and how we want to worship, for example. There are those of my generation who feel the need to worship using liturgies and singing hymns in their own language, while there are others who are far more at home with, and love, traditional Anglican worship in English.  At the same time, the need to preserve some part of one’s original identity seems to be very profound and there are many gathered congregations of many denominations that satisfy that need, acting very much as a social and community focus for the diaspora concerned, even though they have to use the Roman script to print prayers and hymns in the original language!

            I would class myself a ‘social migrant’, choosing to adopt this country after finding some of the social codes of my own background, especially relating to women, stifling.  So for me it is particularly alarming to see how we as a society are willing to accept erosions of values in the name of interfaith relations (and I say that as a passionate advocate of peaceful coexistence of religions and interfaith dialogue).  The veil issue is a case in point.  The Muslim community in Kerala dates back many centuries, but until a few years ago I had never seen a niqab-wearing woman there and even now, despite the strong Arab influence on the Keralan migrant workers in the Gulf region, they are very much a rarity.  So I find the assertion that ‘Islam demands it’ difficult.  I find even more difficult the demands of the Luton schoolgirl who wanted to wear a robe as she found the widely accepted selwar-kameez, with their traditional ‘baggy trousers’, too immodest.  Was her modesty affronted when her face (complete with make-up, it seemed) was plastered on the front pages of newspapers?  The irony is that Muslim countries are unashamed in prohibiting, in varying degrees, the practice of Christianity, and often persecuting Christians, while we nervously ponder the offence that might be caused by requiring a moderate amount of commonality in our dress code! 

            I suspect that like me, many immigrants, and not just Christian immigrants, chose to come to this country at least partly because of the appeal of the Christian values and principles enshrined in the laws and practices here, the welfare state and individual rights and freedoms being good examples of this.  It would be a great pity if the very characteristics of society that were attractive to so many people were allowed to change for the worse without anyone taking serious notice of it. 

 

 

COMMENT: WHAT IS THE CHURCH FOR?

What is the role and purpose of the church? It seems to me that there is a fundamental shift in understanding about the church taking place in British society. Many people in Britain have for generations seen the church as being here primarily to christen babies and conduct weddings and funerals and to provide people with some religious rituals that will give them a sense of peace and spiritual uplift. That's the Vicar's job. That's what people expect from the church.

However we now have an Archbishop of York who does not come from an English background. His faith was forged in the furnace of Idi Amin's Uganda. He and many others see the Christian faith as a transforming power and influence within the whole of human society. My own call to ordained ministry arose out of my experience of the church in South Africa that was at the forefront of confronting apartheid and modelling a new kind of society. Many Christians in Britain today believe that the purpose of the church is to be salt and light, to permeate society with a distinctive quality of life, to dispel darkness and arrest decay. We are here to make a difference, to bring about change. I believe that the local church is God's secret weapon to transform the world. If local churches throughout Britain were committed to living the life of Jesus in loving and caring communities we could radically affect the future of this nation. That's what I believe the church is for.

Ian Cowley 

 

Faith, democracy and ideology

In their recent conflict with the government about the adoption of children by same-sex couples,  Roman Catholic Church leaders were accused of seeking exemption from something serving the public good – viz. non-discrimination – in order that they might uphold the church’s own private principles.

            Actually, of course, they were seeking to uphold principles which their church believes are precisely for the public good. And, as Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor pointed out, much social provision today stems from past initiatives inspired by such Christian concern.

            Jonathan Bartley sees this concern as the crux of all Christian engagement with public life. Freedom for such engagement ‘is not about Christians protecting their own religious interest at all. Rather, it is about their freedom to speak out in the interest of others.’ Such freedom becomes contentious, he remarks, when a gulf grows between the churches and the nation state over the interpretation of public principles such as equal treatment, tolerance and the rule of law.1

            Today this freedom appears increasingly under threat from secular ideology. And ‘Once knowledge is equated with ideology, it is no longer necessary to argue with opponents on intellectual grounds or to enter into their point of view. It is enough to dismiss them as eurocentric, racist, sexist, homophobic ­ in other words, as politically suspect.’2

            In such ideological discourse, the charge of ‘discrimination’ is a trump card which lends itself to indiscriminate use. But real discrimination is too serious an injustice for us to allow the charge to be so discredited.

            Legislation must leave a proper space for unresolved issues regarding what constitutes ‘the public good’, ‘discrimination’ etc. especially where these issues arise among those known for their conscience-inspired commitment and initiatives towards the public good. When their contribution is excluded from the public realm, public space begins to look more like a private space over which the government has absolute property rights. The traditional vision of democracy is more inclusive than this.

Notes

1. Church Times, 12 January, 2007.

2. Christopher Lasch, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy (Norton, 1995, pp. 12-13)

 

A problem like Maria

‘‘What shall we do with a problem like Maria?’, sing a chorus of nuns at the start of The Sound of Music,  the most successful musical ever. But the question seems to have presented itself first to the would-be directors of the play and film based on the life of this devout young Christian woman. As Andrew Lloyd Webber’s new stage production attracts popular attention, we might reflect on this.

            In her autobiographical The Trapp Family Singers, the real-life Maria chose to begin at the same place as the film. However, when she was interviewed for Desert Island Discs in the 1980’s she described how she came to enter that convent in the first place. As skilful young mountaineer, one evening she had been entrusted with the task of belaying for a group of climbers. As she stood alone watching the sun set on the glacier, its colours refracting through the ice, she was overwhelmed by the beauty of the scene. If God had given her so much, she reflected, in return she should give him everything. Nothing less would be enough. She set off directly to the convent, rucksack on back, and asked to join the community. Despite the absence of normal procedure, it was decided to accept her.

 

Faith excised

Her devout Christian faith permeates Maria’s books. However, it seems to have presented a problem to play and film directors. In the film, her faith is hardly visible. Indeed sometimes it is replaced jarringly by sheer sentiment. Striking illustrations of this are the two songs for which Richard Rogers wrote the lyrics as well as the music (usually Rogers wrote the music and Hammerstein the lyrics).

            Maria sings the first song as she approaches the Villa of Captain von Trapp to work as resident tutor to his children. She is overawed at the sight of it. It would have been simply consistent with her faith to depict her offering up a prayer putting her confidence in God. But instead Maria is made to sing ‘I have confidence in confidence alone; besides which, you see, I have confidence in me’. God does not feature.

            The second song is Maria’s response to the Captain’s marriage proposal. ‘Somewhere in my youth or childhood’ she sings, ‘I must have done something good’. As a sentiment this it at the level of the response to misfortune when it comes, ‘what have I done to deserve this?’ The real-life Maria recounts a different story. She was reluctant to marry Captain von Trapp, her love being for the convent. But she accepted marriage to him as a responsibility laid upon her by God (so her convent sisters told her, having sought guidance from the Spirit), in order to secure her ongoing care of the Captain’s children. Had she however been pleased about it, she would no doubt have received it as another gracious gift of God like that which on the glacier inspired her vocation, and not as a reward for having ‘done something good’.

            Julie Andrews has said that it was a constant challenge when making the film to ‘keep down the sugar’. Compare this to Maria’s words in her preface to The Trapp Family Singers: ‘While I was working on this book and writing down the memories of a family, it amazed me to see how much love – genuine, real love – was stored up in one brief lifetime; first, God’s love for us his children, the guiding , protecting love of a father; and as all real love calls forth love in return, it couldn’t be different’. Here is something more nourishing than sugar, to feed the popular imagination.

            My point is not simply that The Sound of Music fails to give Christian faith its due. It is rather that it illustrates how the quite ordinary nourishment of popular, tacit Christian imagination by stories of faith gets blocked by the intervention of media and entertainment beliefs and values. It gets blocked by the ideology and sentiment prevalent among the producers of popular mass culture and expressed in the work of individual directors and script writers. How might  popular Christian imagination one day come to be nourished more freely?

 

 

Book reviews

Duncan MacLaren, Mission Implausible: Restoring Credibility to the Church Carlisle: Paternoster, 2004, 214 pp., £15.99 (pb).

David F. Wells, Above All Earthly Pow’rs: Christ in a Postmodern World , Eerdmans/IVP, 2005, 317 pp., £14.99 (hb).

These two books share similar concerns, but the specific contexts they address differ significantly, and the conclusions they reach are distinct. Both acknowledge that today’s Western Church faces major challenges to its ministry and mission due to the shift from modernity to postmodernity. Wells has long stood out as one of the most passionate and provocative analysts of Christianity in contemporary culture , and Above All Earthly Pow’rs completes a tetralogy which began with No Place for Truth in 1993 and continued through God in the Wasteland and Losing our Virtue. By contrast MacLaren is relatively unknown; yet he matches Wells for verve, while writing rather more precisely and practically about how churches can live, worship and witness with integrity in the postmodern world.  

               The contrasts between the two texts owe much to the fact that they are written on opposite sides of the Atlantic, and aim mainly to address their own national situation. Wells is aware that the USA is the ‘great exception’ to the chronic decline of the Church in the rich West, with attendance rates still around 40% compared to the plummeting single-figure statistics in Britain and Europe. So whereas MacLaren seeks radical, emergency aid for a UK Church in which leading denominations might lose viability within the next generation, Wells is more concerned with the pitfalls which have accompanied the relative success and ‘largesse’ of American churches, and most particularly, of the American Evangelical churches. Indeed, he writes very much as an American Evangelical to fellow American Evangelicals, and assumes that it is they who hold the key to the future. As such, his primary purpose is to warn them of complacency – to bemoan their accommodation with secular niche marketing strategies, self-help discourses and shallow consumerism, and to rouse them instead to a costly re-emphasis on full-orbed gospel truth, however ‘intolerant’ that may seem in a wider civic society sold on relativism. The key to this, he insists, is a socially-engaged Christology which confidently reasserts the sovereignty of Jesus in all areas of life. It is to this doctrinal paradigm that Wells devotes the central section of his book.

               Maclaren echoes Wells when he insists that churches which hope to buck the general European decline must be ‘theologically robust’ if they are to deal with the inevitable marginalisation that will come as they try to live holistically for Christ in a society which has forgotten the gospel. Granted, they must continue to engage with this society - treating nominalism as an opportunity rather than a threat, exhibiting ‘dynamics of credibility’, achieving ‘significance within culture’, and inculcating ‘structures of plausibility’. But those structures must function as ‘shelters’ rather than merely as gateways: there will be tensions, and the church will have to protect the adults it disciples and the young people in whom it invests. Actually, MacLaren goes further than Wells in advocating new, ‘sociologically sectarian’ forms of church life in which difference is embraced rather than resisted. However, while there are clear precedents for such self-consciously marginal, intentional communities within Evangelicalism (e.g among the Anabaptists), MacLaren opts to reach back to the early medieval period. While aware that readings of Celtic Christianity are much disputed and sometimes fancifully anachronistic, he still finds in the life of Saint Columba, and in the community he founded on Iona, key clues to the future health of the British church. Although Celtic monasteria concentrated ministerial, liturgical and practical resources in one place, they also functioned as dispersed missional communities, servicing outlying churches, villages and towns. For all the changes wrought by postmodernity, this basic pattern of a ‘core community with a common rule serving a wider hinterland’ is presented by MacLaren as a thread running through many creative postmodern expressions of church – one which in turn contrasts with the parochial and ‘gathered church’ ecclesiologies which predominated in modernity. Thus he sees suggestive forms of this ‘Columban’ paradigm in Christian communities as diverse as the Jesus Army, the Leeds-based internet church www.sanctus.org, and the Oasis Trust’s Faithworks project.

               MacLaren’s vision is as big as Wells’, and he can paint with as broad a brush. If he devotes less space to explicitly doctrinal theology, it is not because he denigrates sound doctrine, but because he realises that doctrine is expressed through mission, worship and community, as well as before them. To be fair, Wells affirms this, too, but those acquainted with earlier volumes in his tetralogy might nonetheless yearn for more practical demonstration and hard exemplification of authentic church life in this final text: the oracular denunciations of Evangelical compromise are still often salutary, but they risk becoming over-familiar. If you admire Wells, Above all Earthly Pow’rs will confirm you admiration. But MacLaren’s bold, fresh voice deserves the sort of audience that Wells now commands.

David Hilborn

 

J. Andrew Kirk, Mission Under Scrutiny: Confronting Current Challenges, Darton, Longman & Todd, 2006, 227pp., £12.95.

 ‘It is not necessary to opt either for a refusal to engage with current irreligious cultures or to submit to their basic assumptions.’ This sentence in the final chapter defines the stance Kirk takes in his latest book. He takes contemporary culture seriously, he analyses its premises, sets forth its arguments, and attempts to do justice to them. Ultimately, however, he presents a counter-cultural position based upon what he sees as the radically different nature of the Gospel. He is pessimistic about secular values and concerned that much contextualisation is compromise.

               The premise of the book is the vital importance of engaging missiologically with the secular and, largely, western world. Kirk brings biblical and global perspectives to this engagement. The first three chapters analyse the secular, postmodern culture and provide a missional response. Then Kirk looks at scripture, evangelism, religion and violence, prophecy, and contextualisation using the example of the debates over homosexuality. He deliberately tackles some of the most controversial issues and puts forward a variety of positions before cogently arguing for his own. In doing so he brings a fresh approach to familiar issues. He concludes by calling for radical discipleship in mission that refutes the relativism and pluralism of postmodernity.

               Kirk is known for his thoughtful books on mission topics. His writing is clear and accessible for the general reader, and this book is no exception. However, it feels more like a selection of essays than a cohesive volume. His criteria for selecting the topics is that they are ‘some of the most pressing problems facing the Church in mission.’ Since it is impossible to be exhaustive, a more focused rationale might have been helpful. And the book might be better described if the two parts of the title were swapped, giving ‘Confronting Current Challenges’ a prior position. These, however, are quibbles. Those who want to understand different positions on the pertinent cultural issues addressed and to reflect on Christian responses to them will find much of aid here.

Emma Wild-Wood

 

 

Timothy Jenkins, An Experiment in Providence: How faith engages with the world, SPCK, 2006, 146pp., £9.99 (pb).

Jenkins invites us in to a sharing of faith, saying “you cannot be put off reading scripture by the expertise of scholars; it is too precious.”

               He finds, within the Anglican tradition of using the whole of scripture in daily worship, valuable insights from even the most unpromising biblical material, like the despair of the preacher in Ecclesiastes. Where in Judges we read “everybody did as he saw fit”, this “has an uncomfortably modern ring to it”. “We live in a land of pleasures and temptations… joining in indigenous practices and forgetting our Christian calling.”

               He analyses the Toronto Blessing as a phenomenon which echoes the ordination of women, noting “Some images informed by categories of gender are acted out…. People who are filled with the Spirit are out of control of themselves, and mastered by God. There is an acting out of disorderliness and irresponsibility that is at the same time pleasurable. The ‘drunken’ women perhaps epitomize this …. There is a ‘feminization’ of the congregation…. and a corresponding emphasis on the masculinity of God.”

               Jenkins revels in trinities. He has three approaches to scripture: reading commentaries, using cross references, and making careful note of the structure of each book. Churches are described as having “three serious theological elements - order, freedom and human flourishing – in play”. Older societies, from the time of Anselm, were identified as consisting of three elements, church, nobility and people, with related rights and obligations, a scheme which came to a cataclysmic end in the French revolution.

               From this Jenkins boldly advocates the thesis that Anglicanism is the only answer to modernity, with its trinity of scripture, tradition and reason, and from this comes hope.

               Coming from the Dean of an ancient Anglican academic institution, this is a valuable reflection on pastoral work sustained by prayer.

Tom Ambrose

 

 

Theos – public theology think tank

In November 2006 Theos launched its first report and made national news in the process. Director Paul Woolley outlines the background, aims and objectives of this new initiative.

 

The origin of the term “think tank” is American and was first applied in the UK to the Centre Policy Review Staff (CPRS), a “central capability unit”, established in the Cabinet Office in 1970 by the then Prime Minister, Edward Heath.

 

The battle of ideas

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the term came to be used to refer to outside, ideologically driven, free market bodies, such as the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), the Adam Smith Institute and the Centre for Policy Studies. They provided the ideas that helped shape the instincts and energy of Thatcherism. William Wallace has observed that the new right think tanks that sprung up alongside the IEA were “small, passionately committed and concerned only with providing arguments for those already half-persuaded” (Wallace 1994 p. 149). In 1988 the third way Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) was founded in order to give the Labour Party its own Centre for Policy Studies (CPS), and the Social Market Foundation (SMF) (1989) emerged shortly afterwards to do the same for the Social Democrats. During the last 25 years, the number of think tanks in the UK has proliferated.

            In short, think tanks undertake in-depth research, publish reports and promote ideas in order to change the climate of opinion. It was this observation that led to the creation of Theos.

 

Origins

The start of Theos can be traced back a decade to a conversation between Lesslie Newbigin and the present Bishop of Durham, Tom Wright. They reflected on the success of think tanks in changing public opinion and taking ideas from the margins (such a Neo-Conservative economics) into the political and cultural mainstream. They speculated about the possibility of doing something similar with theology. The establishment of Theos last year represented the realisation of this dream.

 

Theological commentary

Theos aims to provide alternative perspectives to the orthodoxies of secular culture and impact public opinion about the role faith and belief in society. We undertake research and provide commentary on social and political arrangements. The word “Theos” and our descriptor, “the public theology think tank”, reflect our overall aim of putting God “back” into the public domain. We are ecumenical and are as influenced by the Kuyperian view as Catholic Social Teaching.  

 

De-secularisation

Our perspective is that society is embarking on a process of rapid de-secularisation. Interest in spirituality is increasing across Western culture. Indeed, religion is the issue of our time. Faith is firmly on the agenda of both government and the media. In the arts, humanities and social sciences there are important and exciting intellectual developments currently taking place around questions of values and identity. Theos speaks into this new context. Our perspective is that faith is not just important for human flourishing and the renewal of society, but that society can only truly flourish if faith is given the space to do so. Indeed, this was the subject of our first report, Doing God: A Future for Faith in the Public Square. With a foreword by Rowan Williams and Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, the report argued that religion will play an increasingly significant role in our culture during the years ahead.

 

Reaction

The launch of Theos provoked a robust reaction. In the Guardian, AC Grayling, Professor of Philosophy at Birkbeck College, called the first report ‘confused’ and recoiled against the idea that atheism could be described as a faith perspective. The historian, David Starkey, was prompted to call for the disestablishment of the Church of England. Madeleine Bunting, Guardian columnist and speaker at our launch event, expressed concern over a new wave of ‘Christian triumphalism’. However, all of this is welcome. One of the things that will mark Theos out will be generosity in debate. People are allowed their views, and allowed to attack our perspective. It does not hurt us. That is the nature of the public square. Indeed, the freedom to debate in such a way is itself a gift of the Christian tradition. It is far more important that people are having the conversation.

 

In-depth research and analysis

Theos is committed to undertaking research across a wide range of subject areas. We analyse social and political change and offer interesting new angles and alternative perspectives on the issues that matter. We produce high-quality research, reports and publications, an events’ programme, news, information and analysis to media companies and other opinion formers and regular email bulletins.

            In addition to our independently driven work, we provide research, analysis and advice to individuals and organisations across the private, public and not-for-profit sectors. Theos operates using a business model and the funding received as a result of this research is essential to our existence. Our unique position within the think tank sector means that we have the capacity to develop proposals that carry values - with an eye to demonstrating what really works. Our staff and consultants have strong public affairs experience, an excellent research track record and a high level of theological literacy. In addition, we are practised in campaigning, media relations, detailed policy development and effecting policy change. Our hope is that, as a result, we can be a bridge from the University to the culture.

            Our prayer is that we can have a similar impact to the one that the mainstream secular think tanks have had in changing opinion, but, contrary to the earlier observation by Wallace, convince the un-persuaded as well as the half persuaded. It is an ambitious aim, but one that we are committed to achieving.

            For more information about Theos or to order a copy of the first report, go to www.theosthinktank.co.uk

 

This issue’s contributors

Tom Ambrose is Vicar of Trumpington, Cambridge

John Coffey is Reader in Early Modern History at the University of Leicester .

Ian Cowley is an author and Vicar of Yaxley and Holme with Conington, in the Diocese of Ely

David Hilborn is Director of Studies, North Thames Ministerial Training Course

Anna Thomas-Betts is retired Senior Lecturer in Geophysics from Imperial College London and a member of the General Synod of the Church of England

Emma Wild-Wood is Secretary of the British and Irish Association of Mission Studies

Paul Woolley is Director of Theos

 

Newsletter 49 (Summer 2007)

Climate change and repentance

Stephen May

Everywhere you look climate change and its effects are at the top of the public agenda: today’s Times (18/5/07) was headlined ‘Rapid rise in global warming is forecast’. The television schedules have been full of programmes about the topic over the last few years, the news bulletins with items on Antarctic, Arctic and Greenland ice-shelf melting and drowning polar bears. What has been presented by the media – particularly apart from one infamous Channel Four documentary of dubious pedigree – has been a consistent narrative, one of human-caused atmospheric pollution leading to a multitude of unpleasant consequences. There is considerable debate over how far these can be stopped or mitigated: is it already too late, as James Lovelock of ‘Gaia’ fame seems to think? The ever-increasing evidence of this escalating catastrophe is overwhelming to most people; however it is rejected by sceptics such as US President George W. Bush, the American oil companies, and many accused of vested interests by their opponents. Others have talked with a modernist confidence of the power of technology to solve any problems that might arise.

            Where is the ordinary Christian to stand in the midst of this debate?

 

A memorable conference

The considerable appeal of this issue was shown by the great success of a WYSOCS day conference held in December 2006 on ‘Climate Change and the Global Economy’. The original event was so oversubscribed as to need expansion. It sought not just to examine the scientific evidence for climate change - though this was admirably, persuasively and clearly presented by leading scientist Sir John Houghton in the first part of the day – but also the underlying reasons for it. The second part was thus devoted to theologian Professor Bob Goudzwaard’s analysis, ‘Unmasking the ideologies obstructing global economic change.’ I found the large numbers in attendance and the buzzy atmosphere fascinating. It testified to an awareness among Christians that we cannot stand on the sidelines regarding this issue, but need to come to a mature, reflective but committed and active stance. The standard of presentation was excellent and the conference itself very well managed.

 An Inconvenient Truth

Some right-wing American evangelists describe all talk of climate change as a huge fraud, but other American Evangelical leaders have gone public over the need to take it seriously. Unlike sceptic Bush, his opponent in the 2000 US Presidential election Al Gore (announcing himself as ‘the man who used to be the next President of the United States’) has always been concerned about the issue. Bush and Gore are both Christians. Gore’s documentary film, ‘An Inconvenient Truth’, has gone round the world and won unprecedented critical and popular success.

            The title of that film shows that the debate is almost as much about the motivation for asserting what one believes the facts are, as about the facts themselves. They are most decidedly not ‘value-free’. At the end of ‘An Inconvenient Truth’, a number of suggestions intersperse the usual credits. One runs like this:

            ‘If you believe in prayer,

            pray

            that people will change their mind.’           

 On the flyer for WYSOCS December day conference on ‘Climate Change and Global Economy’, the synopsis of Bob Goodzwaard’s paper ends with the question, ‘What should we pray?’

 A change of heart

This similarity is a testimony not just to Gore’s own Christian faith but to the acceptability of - at least some - religious discourse in the US public realm. It is also an indication that both Gore and Goudzwaard believe that there are core theological and ethical issues at the heart of the climate change debate, not just matters of disputed fact. The notion of changing your mind - repentance in other words - is key to remedying circumstances that are otherwise leading inexorably to disaster. That is both why the conference was held and why, on his own claim, Gore has given his climate change slide show thousands of times. People need to alter their behaviour and, for that to occur, they need to be persuaded both of what is happening and what they can do to alter it. Their reluctance to admit it, it is argued, is tied up with what the Bible calls sin. It involved a change of heart and behaviour. If, as Gore memorably puts it, people tend to slide straight from denial to despair, they need to be shown the situation is not irremediable.

 Beyond human self-interest

Another question may be raised. Is talk of climate change still too much driven by human self-interest? Does our vision not need to go beyond ourselves to the whole of God’s world, for which, according to many readings of Genesis, we have responsibility? That humans are under threat is terrible, but it is also a tragedy that the world’s biodiversity is being devastated. C.S. Lewis would surely concur that we should be weeping over an extinction of species brought about by our greed and carelessness.

            The WYSOCS conference understandably could not do everything, and largely ignored such questions. What it did seek to do was to open eyes. It also asked pertinent questions over our way of life, raising issues as to how far Christians habitually and unreflectively accept the consumerist ‘growth’ values of our age. It was a welcome introduction to a subject that surely deserves more serious study. Gore’s film was addressed almost entirely (though very ably) at the first level alone.

 Bandwagon religion?

Many thoughtful Christians are wary of ‘jumping on a bandwagon’, afraid of hitching themselves to a cause dependent on possibly questionable scientific analysis, and of being swept along by a ‘trendy’ alarmism that may leave them feeling foolish in a few years time. Though such caution is understandable, it is hard to follow the analysis of John Houghton or Al Gore without feeling that the science is overwhelming. They certainly persuaded me that the situation is not remotely comparable to little Ice Ages brought about by solar and other cycles: it is of a different order of magnitude and ever-increasing. The number of scientists worldwide coming to this opinion worldwide is becoming overwhelming too. UN reports are unanimous, almost all the countries of the world coming to consensus on the problems. To deny this is akin to aligning oneself with ‘Young Earthers’ who insist on a literal reading of Genesis. It is a sacrificium intellectus, burying one’s head in the sand.

            If part of the Enlightenment legacy has been a false fact/value split, with the Church relegated to dealing only with ‘spiritual matters’, then rejecting this split entails refusing such marginalisation. The Church must take the climate issue seriously. Certainly it must question its roots and remedies; but it must not, as it does so, deny the seriousness of the issue. To do so would be irresponsible. This position is by no means an alternative to maintaining orthodoxy but is utterly consistent with it. It does not mean ‘going along with the world’; it means refusing its characteristic sin and selfishness. It does not mean being distracted from proclaiming the salvation of Christ, for God’s salvation is for the world. Certainly there are questions to unfold here, about acting for this world in the ‘interim’ before the Parousia.  But this should stir us to further thought and action. We cannot take refuge in wilful blindness.

 

COMMENT: LIVING IN AN AGE ADDICTED TO EXCESS

It was in the early 1970's that I first became aware of the words ecology and pollution. Like many of the post war "baby boomer" generation I grew up in a world which seemed to be still largely unspoilt. The beaches were pristine, petrol was cheap and plentiful, and the possibility of human beings seriously endangering the future of the planet through economic and industrial development seemed remote.

            However the danger signs were there. The local brick factory belched out daily clouds of soot and smoke which undoubtedly polluted the air that we breathed. Rachel Carson had written her prescient and influential book "Silent Spring".  Some of us decided to try to avoid processed foods and disposable consumer goods. But by and large the warnings went unheeded.

            Now with the daily stream of evidence of the reality of global warming, at last we seem to be waking up. But is it too late? How on earth can we be weaned off our appetite for cheap air travel, unlimited household gadgets and the "right" to an ever improving standard of living? How can we tell the peoples of India, China and numerous other developing countries that they are not entitled to the same aspirations?

            Many economists and scientists are telling us that it is not too late to save  the planet. If we change now, they say, then the worst scenarios can still be avoided. But can we change now? Can we really cut back on our desire for consumer goods, electricity and unfettered mobility? I suspect that our society is now addicted to a way of life that we will not give up unless it is actually taken from us. So for Christians, and for all people of conscience, there is the age-old call to live prophetically in a world hurtling towards crisis and catastrophe.  Never has the need for simple lifestyles been more important. Simplicity is a key Christian discipline, taught and practised by Jesus and by many of his most influential followers through the centuries. The church in the developed world must rediscover the practice of simple living if we are to have much at all to offer to the world of the 21st Century.

Ian Cowley

 

Faith, Historical Identity – and Consumerism

David Kettle

A Benedictine moment?

John Henry Newman saw Christian culture as having three great ages: ‘First, the age of St Benedict, which Newman calls the age of poetry or imagination. Second, the age of St Dominic, that of theological science. And third, the age of St Ignatius, that of prudential or practical reason.’ 1 In an April 2005 lecture, Cardinal Ratzinger recalled Newman’s words. Reporting his lecture, Carol Zaleski writes:

            ‘Each of these ages belongs to the living Church, is relevant to the present, and moves towards its future realisation in God’s plan. But there are also times of special ascendancy for each age.’

            In particular, Newman wrote that the age of St Benedict came into being when the world was “old, decayed and moribund”, bringing with it an unlooked-for rejuvenation.

            Zaleski comments ‘The age of St Benedict returns, in alls its poetry, simplicity, penitent humility and balance, whenever Christian civilization is depleted or under attack.’

            The Cardinal told his audience that today we live in a ‘Benedictine moment’. Eighteen days later, elected Pope, he took the name Benedict XVI.

 European and British identity

The occasion of today’s ‘Benedictine moment’ is, for Benedict XVI, the contemporary decay of European culture and of its Christian civilization. Thus in December 2005 (see ACCESS 581)2   posing the question ‘What is left of European culture today?’, he continues ‘perhaps nothing more than the technology and trade civilization which has marched triumphantly across the planet?’ ‘At the hour of its greatest success,’ he writes, ‘Europe seems hollow.. All that it sees in its own history is the despicable and the destructive… what Europe needs is a new self-acceptance, a self-acceptance that is critical and humble, if it truly wishes to survive’.

            Such greater self-acceptance, including greater historical and Christian self-awareness, will be needed in Britain too if we are fruitfully to acknowledge and affirm the ‘British way of life’ as desired by incoming Prime Minister Gordon Brown (among others). In the British case, however, there are distinct challenges over and above  that posed by the ‘lack of self-love’ we share with the rest of Europe according to Benedict XVI. In particular there has been traditionally among the English less interest in celebrating a national identity than in celebrating nationally the virtue of being a rational, civilized and Christian person. This suggests that Christians should contribute keenly to any contemporary exploration of the ‘British way of life’.

 Christianity and nationalism

Should the churches now seek a revived national awareness of and appreciation of the Christian influence upon our culture? Might this not play into the hands of a resurgent BNP-style nationalism? Some fear so. Jonathan Bartley writes: ‘the time has come to face the fact that when (the Church of England) uses rhetoric about ‘our Christian nation’, it risks encouraging support for right-wing extremists’.3 Nor is such rhetoric effective in his view; rather, ‘it will be the quality of contemporary political witness, not appeals to a bygone age, that will sort the sheep from the goats’.

            Now this stance will have appeal especially for those critical of the ‘culture Christianity’ of Christendom, including those within the Anabaptist tradition. And the voice of this critical tradition surely needs to be heard today in an age when our culture is drifting so far from understanding and regard for Christianity, and the premises of Christendom-style ministry grow ever more incongruous.

            Nevertheless, to point to the Christian contribution in our culture is potentially a far more vital exercise in communication than merely appealing to a ‘bygone age’. We can do so seeking to reawaken awareness of and renew the deepest and most promising well-springs of our continued way of life today. Again, to seek this is not merely to exploit the dominance (however shrinking) of Christian religion in our culture, but something far more vital. It is to seek to reclaim and build on the fruits of centuries of faithful Christian mission in our culture freely shaping the hearts and minds, values and rationality and imagination of the population.

            These vital dimensions of the Christian task today will be the theme of our forthcoming Day Conference at Birmingham in September, with the hurdles and sensitivities to be addressed in connection with this task.

 Identity and consumerism

Meanwhile other factors work against any ‘cultural renewal’ (except of a distorted, fundamentalist kind) today. The traditional, tacit sources of cultural identity are fading which have been associated with belonging to family, community and nation and the obligations imposed by these. There have been corresponding changes in attitude towards Christian religion. These have been noted by sociologist Grace Davie. She traces the broad development of what she characterises as ‘believing without belonging’, and of a shift away from ‘an ethic of obligation’ towards ‘an ethic of consumption’.

            Are these changes to be accepted as normative for faith in contemporary culture? Do they offer a blueprint for the future of the church? Rather they drive us back to our deepest Christian resources for thinking about believing, belonging, obligation and choice which are to be found in the Gospel with reference to our relationship with God in Christ (see ACCESS 586).4 To be sure, on the one hand such reflection may reveal that our traditional Christian ideas about belonging and obligation contain culture-bound elements from a past culture we must lay aside today. That is important. But it may also reveal that our contemporary cultural accounts of believing, belonging, obligation and choice are inadequate and a distorted model of what God intends for us, and that the Church is called to be countercultural in these matters.

 A Church for the moment?

Meanwhile consumerism, for all it’s rhetorical celebration of choice and of self-fulfilment, hardly fosters in any obvious way self-acceptance or self-awareness, either at a personal or cultural level. More evidently, it stimulates a feeling that we need something or other, even a feeling of personal neediness.

            The problematic distortion of Christian religion by consumerism is (so far) more apparent to Christian critics in the United States than in Britain. It prompts Eugene Peterson (ACCESS 590)4 provocatively to ask: ‘Do we realize how almost exactly the Baal culture of Canaan is reproduced in American church culture? Baal religion is about what makes you feel good. Baal worship is a total immersion in what I can get out of it. And of course, it was incredibly successful.’ Peterson alludes to a friend of his who is always saying “You’ve got to identify people’s felt needs. Then you can construct as program to meet the felt needs.” ‘It’s pretty easy’ says Peterson, ‘to manipulate people. We’re so used to being manipulated by the image industry, the publicity industry, and the politicians that we hardly know we’re being manipulated’.

            However, ‘This impatience to leave the methods of Jesus in order to get the work of Jesus done is what destroys spirituality… The minute you start doing things impersonally, functionally, mass-oriented, you deny the gospel’. Ironically we do it even with respect to faith at its most personal, by selling spirituality as about buying into emotional intimacy with God. ‘This promise of intimacy is both right and wrong.’ says Peterson. ‘There is an intimacy with God, but it’s like any other intimacy you don’t feel intimate most of the time. Intimacy isn’t primarily a mystical emotion. It’s a way of life, a life of openness, honesty, a certain transparency’ And the way to such intimacy is shown by Jesus: “Now that you’ve got a life, I’m going to show you how to give it up”. Peterson explains ‘as you learn how to die, you start losing your illusions, and you start being capable now of true intimacy and love.’

            Are there echoes here of the poetry, simplicity, penitent humility and balance which, in Newman’s imagination, characterize ‘the age of St Benedict’? We might well think so. One thing is for sure: it certainly doesn’t sound like the age of consumerism.

Notes

1.         Carol Zaleski, ‘Two Benedicts and the renewal of Catholic Culture’, Second Spring, Vol.8, 2007, pp. 6-16.

2.         Pope Benedict XVI, ‘Europe and Its Discontents’, First Things, January 2006 (available as ACCESS 581).

3.         Jonathan Bartley, ‘Beware the wolf in sheep’s clothing’, Church Times, 20th April 2007.

4.         On this see David Kettle, ‘Believing without belonging? Cultural change seen in theological context’, International Review of         Mission, Vo. 94, No. 375, October 2005, pp. 507-523 (available as ACCESS 586).

5.         Eugene Peterson, ‘Spirituality for All the Wrong Reasons’, Christianity Today, March 2005, pp. 42-48. (available as ACCESS 590).

 

A Rocha

Introduced by Dave Bookless, Founder & National Director of A Rocha UK

 

At the moment it’s somewhat bewildering being a Christian in the environmental field. For years we’ve been stuck in a wilderness area, between a green lobby that blames Christianity for legitimising the exploitation of nature, and a Church that sees the earth a distraction from the ‘real spiritual business’. Suddenly for A Rocha (www.arocha.org) and other Christian environmental groups, we’re now everybody’s best friend – mission agencies and churches are falling over themselves to be greener than Thou, and even the major environmental charities are looking to the world faiths for a moral lead on tackling Climate Change.

            There is undoubtedly a major change taking place in our western culture – the old world of faith in science, human progress and unlimited economic growth is clashing head-on with the realities of a planet in distress, and with alternative world-views seeking a more holistic, planet-friendly way of being. The key question is how Christians will line up in this changing context, and what distinctive biblical contribution Christians can bring to shape the emerging culture.

            The A Rocha story is one example of Christian responses to this question. A Rocha (Portuguese for ‘the Rock’) began in 1983 with the vision of Peter and Miranda Harris to establish a Christian Field Studies Centre in the Algarve, amidst the ecological wilderness caused by mass tourism. The first A Rocha project became a crucible of scientific research, community living, and incarnational Christian presence, from which a set of values gradually emerged. These have now spawned a global movement of Christians across six continents, seeking to care for creation and incarnate Christ’s Lordship over creation. A recent global A Rocha leaders’ forum in Kenya saw over 20 countries represented, and encouraging signs of a profound change taking place in Christian thinking and action.

            So what are A Rocha’s distinctive values? Firstly we are Christian, not in the sense of being a sub-culture set against the world, but in believing that God’s Word is true for the whole world and contains the power to transform people, societies and nature. We are constantly called back to and challenged by scriptural insights, often finding that ‘Christian cultures’ have drifted a long way from God’s purposes. Peter Harris, now President of A Rocha, speaks of “the GM church, where the DNA of our societies has been patched in such that the Gospel we preach is no longer biblical.”

            Secondly we are called to Conservation of the natural world, based on the first great commission of Genesis 1.26-28 and 2.15 – the call to study and steward God’s world to His glory. In the increasing range of projects A Rocha is involved in, this includes cleaning and restoring 90 acres of urban London wasteland, seeking ways to mitigate human-elephant conflict in India and Ghana, encouraging responsible eco-tourism and sustainable agriculture in Kenya, and helping landowners in France and Lebanon protect marshes of great wildlife importance. In every case, A Rocha tries to resist the sad dichotomy often drawn between the needs of people and of wildlife, believing that both are involved in God’s creating, sustaining and redeeming purposes.

            Thirdly, we place great value on Community, sometimes expressed through intentional life-sharing under one roof, but always seen as building on our nature as one created community under God. Of course community, with its challenge to individualism, and consumerism, and its exposure to who the other really is ‘warts and all’, is deeply counter-cultural, but in A Rocha’s experience it is so often the place of encounter with God amidst the surprising and mundane. As well as ‘internal’ community amongst those working or volunteering for A Rocha, there is a commitment to long-term relationship-building within our local communities.

            Next, A Rocha is deeply Cross-cultural valuing the insights of the worldwide church, encouraging exchanges between projects, and seeking to be shaped in its organisational development particularly by non-Western voices.

            Finally, we are committed to Cooperation with any who share our objectives in a specific task. You are probably more likely to encounter A Rocha at an environmental conference or in a conservation journal, than at a missions fair or in a Christian periodical. Our place is to live out a Christ-centred vision of creation care in the public square, not in a shuttered cloister.

            In the UK, since starting in 2001, we have seen a major project develop in multifaith west London, and now several local projects around the UK, often in partnership with others. We are also finding ourselves drawn in to helping churches and Christian organisations grapple with the theology and practice of ‘creation care’ and in resourcing individuals who want to live more sustainably. We are still small, and no doubt often get it wrong, but it has been thrilling to see the new connections with Christian faith that people make, when they see that God cares not only about disembodied souls, but about the earth and all that is in it.

Notes

1. Rev. Peter Harris, at ‘Hope for the Planet’ conference, November 2005, available on CD-Rom from A Rocha UK

 

Bearer of messages

There is little point in comparing a Sun-god with the Sun or Neptune with the great deep; there is much in comparing the Law with the Sun or saying that God’s judgements are an abyss and a mystery like the sea… By emptying nature of divinity (…) you may fill her with deity, for she is now the bearer or messages. There is a sense in which nature-worship silences her – as if a child (…) were so impressed with the postman’s uniform that he omitted to take in the letters.

C. S. Lewis, Reflections o the Psalms

 

Book reviews

Rick M. Nanez, Full Gospel, Fractured Minds? A Call to Use God’s Gift of the Intellect, Zondervan, 2005, 272pp, £11.99.

In the heyday of the burgeoning charismatic renewal in the 1970s my wife went to hear a charismatic Baptist preacher, who expressed his admiration for the Elim Pentecostal Church - and added that it benefited from having no theologians.  As I was then the lecturer in theology at Elim Bible College (since renamed Regents Theological College) I did not find this comment very positive about my role in educating the students at the college in biblical and historical theology!

               Rick Nanez is an American Assemblies of God minister, lecturer and missionary who has repeatedly encountered in charismatic circles a disparaging attitude to Christian learning and a negativity towards the use of one’s intellect in matters of faith.  His book is an impassioned plea for the restoration of respect for reflective study of the Bible, theology, apologetics, etc., and he argues persuasively for a recognition of the valid place of the intellect, along with the heart, in our devotion to God (cf. Matthew 22:37).  Mature Christian commitment is not an unthinking, irrational engagement of the heart but is grounded in a redeemed understanding of revealed truth (e.g., Romans 12:2; Ephesians 4:23; Colossians 3:2, 10; 2 Timothy 1:7; 1 Peter 1:13).  He notes how Paul and Apollos had absorbed the learning of antiquity and engaged in debates with both sympathetic listeners and enemies (Acts 17:2-3, 17-31; 18:4-5, 13, 19, 26; 19:8-10; 26:24-25; Titus 1:13-14).  Nanez convincingly shows that Paul’s alleged anti-intellectual teaching in 1 Corinthians 1:17-2:1; Colossians 2:8, etc., is directed against negative attitudes grounded in unbelief, not the wisdom generated by the perspectives of faith.

               Nanez demonstrates how early Pentecostal leaders and charismatic preachers today have too often disparaged theological learning, advocating a faith of the heart divorced from a studied consideration of the grounds of that faith.  In contrast he shows how great Christian leaders from the early Church Fathers down to John Wesley and Jonathan Edwards clearly supported careful study for growth in Christian discipleship.  Nanez traces the roots of current anti-intellectualism in the demise of learning in post-revolutionary America and especially in the nineteenth century holiness movement.

               Nanez advocates the regular study of theology, apologetics and ethics by committed Christians and he encourages the local church to nominate appropriate professionals to teach their members informed Christian responses to current issues in these areas.  Nanez also endorses the wider study of history, philosophy and science (as Wesley did for his followers) in relation to the Christian world-view.  Failure to do this will be seriously detrimental to the growth and evangelistic witness of the Church.  It may be noted that evangelical scholarship has never been so thorough and extensive as it is now.  The challenge, Nanez argues, is for pastors to encourage their members to take advantage of this vast resource.  Otherwise an emotionally oriented charismatic Christianity will produce disciples that depend on the vagaries of their inner feelings for spiritual sustenance rather than their understanding of the objective truths of Scripture.  We should not be surprised, when the pressures of life come upon them, that they walk away from the Christian faith.

Julian Ward

 

Jeff Astley, Leslie Francis, John Sullivan and Andrew Walker (eds), The Idea of a Christian University: Essays in Theology and Higher Education, Paternoster, 2004, 295pp., £19.99 pb. 

This is a collection of seventeen essays arranged under two interrogative headings:  A Christian Calling? and A Christian Curriculum?  Two or three can be illustrated here briefly; the remainder mostly merit attention, though I struggle to understand any sympathetic bond between RJ Berry’s chapter on Science and the writers in the first section of the book.  On first reading, I became progressively less stimulated as I went through the book.  Coming back to it, and particularly to the first section, my response has been kinder.

               Most papers come from Great Britain where, in the way of Christian institutions of higher education “there is virtually nothing…from which we can draw inspiration”. (Andrew Walker and Andrew Wright) These authors note in A Christian University Imagined that even the North American plethora of institutions fails to embolden them in their envisioning since “many private colleges with…denominational approval are…Christian universities only in name.”  They know that “a positive Christian contribution to scholarship and the larger community” is made by some, yet Protestant sectarianism is driving others to increase the fragmentation of society.  Using the notion of paideia, Walker and Wright look for a university to reunite the natural and moral universes and to root research and teaching in the knowledge of God in a manner instrumental to the health of student community, church and society.  Such “pursuit of knowledge and formation of character begins and ends in the worship and glorification of God.”  A Christian university has an inevitable missiological task, not in opposition to the world, but by presence in it “as a particular way of being human.”

               Ian Markham’s opening chapter with the book’s title counters the claims of the secular paradigm for society and university.  Secularisation has not (as is often suggested) invariably accompanied advanced scientific and technological culture; indeed it was the Christian doctrine of creation which made science possible.  The secular university is both impoverished (by not exploring certain basic issues) and damaging (because behind its apparent neutrality lie a host of questionable ideological convictions). It resembles a hotel where public space is “void”, the private accommodation can be used for any activity which isn’t illegal and the “services given” all have their price. Markham sees the features of a Christian university as ideological honesty, open-ness about the attempt to inculcate “faith-based” values, and serious engagement with “metaphysics” - addressing the philosophy of each subject taught, and celebrating rationality and conversation in the quest for truth.  He believes that there is a market for such a university (and not only among Christians), that diversity can be handled better in conversation than by banishing it to the private realm, and that its curriculum must reveal a “mission distinctiveness”.

               John Sullivan reviews the contribution of Von Hügel to the theory of Christian education.  Von Hügel commends the benefit of a diversity of interests in the all-round development of students; the need to hold sacred and secular, spiritual and material, in connection; the value of inner stability of conviction in accommodating flexibility and inclusiveness; the need to balance the importance of authority, rationality and experience; the value of ecclesial affiliation and an equilibrating open-ness.  Sullivan calls for such an education’s Christian claims and their practical out-workings to “salience in the institutional, intellectual and experiential life of (the university’s) members.”   He quotes Warren Nord: “most students manage to earn their high school diplomas, their undergraduate degrees and their professional and graduate degrees without ever encountering a live religious idea.”  Following Von Hügel’s insights, he asks what kind or model of church best fits the sympathetic association of affiliation and open-ness that a Christian university needs.  He examines options tabled by Avery Dulles - the institutional, mystical, prophetic, serving and sacramental models of church - and concludes that the final option best fits this need.

               A number of features of this volume strike the reviewer as curious.  Little attention is paid to the existence (in addition to the idea) of those Christian universities that function as such.  Writers like Clouser, Marsden and Wolterstorff appear in the footnotes but the Kuyperian roots of their interest in Christian education and the rich literature springing from these appear to be unknown. “Theology” and “church” are for the authors what mediate Christian understanding to the educational process; I am left wondering: was the translation of Holy Scripture into the vulgar tongue was really all that worthwhile? 

               Recent experiences brought me back to the book with fresh interest – if not with entire reassurance.  At the November meeting in Nicaragua of the International Association for the Promotion of Christian Higher Education (www.iapche.com), I saw the earnest desire of young and growing churches (Latin and African, mainly) for real Christian universities (which would produce generations of leaders in every part of the community’s life). I asked myself whether the European church is too tired, parochial or possessive to encourage lively developments in CHE.  The dangers of too heavy a servant-orientation in church and university were observed and calls were made for emphasis on the humanities in guiding curriculum formation. The “mission distinctiveness” of Christian colleges in the two-thirds world and their engagement with the community were of paramount importance.

               On the other hand, aware of recent problems of mission-minded Christian Unions in UK Universities (which figure after all in my own c.v.), I came upon an unhappy phrase from their own publicity which described their members (with positive intent) as “Christians thinly disguised as students”.  The phrase haunts me when I try to talk hopefully of the idea of a Christian university in the UK.  Could those students either want such a thing or benefit from it?  More worrying still, perhaps, and from a different side, are the signs of liberal, secular totalitarianism which now seems effortlessly to override the freedoms of faith-based institutions of service in this country – the Catholic Adoption Agency in casu.   Kuyper’s “Sphere Sovereignty” lecture of 1880, at the opening of his Free University, needs a modern-day audience in Britain that will grasp the idea of formative cultural power and see that the people of God can exercise such power for the liberation of our countrymen and women from dull, secular empire.  

David Hanson

 

Peter E. Hodgson, Theology and Modern Physics, Ashgate, 2005, xiv + 282pp., £16.99 pb.

Peter Hodgson is a nuclear physicist based in Oxford. In this book he argues persuasively that modern science grew up and flourished in Christendom and that this was no accident. Rather, it stemmed from fundamental Christian beliefs in creation as being the good work of God, and as being contingent and therefore open to investigation of an empirical kind. Moreover, the incarnation shows that time is linear, in contrast to the Aristotelian cyclic view which was an inhibiting factor for Greek science. There was a period of creativity in the Muslim world in the middle ages, but this came to an end with the rise of the belief that God acts directly in the world, rather than through laws of cause and effect which he had ordained. Another reason Hodgson gives for this decline was the view of some Muslim scholars that science should only be pursued for practical ends, rather than for its own sake.

               Hodgson surveys the development of physics from the middle ages, through the renaissance, to modern times. He describes classical physics, relativity, cosmology and (unsurprisingly given his own interests) devotes a full three chapters to quantum theory. The non-specialist reader should be warned, however, of the unexplained mathematics in the text, which will have to be skimmed in order to get the gist of what is being said. It should also be noted that the author takes a controversial stance on quantum theory, rejecting the view of most physicists that the quantum world is ontologically indeterminate. Hodgson thinks rather that quantum theory is incomplete and only describes the statistical behaviour of an ensemble of similar systems. He has theological reasons for taking this line, mainly because he thinks the standard ‘Copenhagen interpretation’ contradicts the notion of a real world created by God. He has similar reasons for asserting that human beings can act freely in this deterministic world because they possess immaterial souls. John Polkinghorne, in contrast, maintains a critical realism; a view of persons as psychosomatic unities; and sees the openness and flexibility of the quantum world (and even more so, the unpredictable world of classical chaos theory) as more positive theologically, both for human and divine agency.

               Whilst Christians of all traditions would endorse a great deal of what Hodgson says, nevertheless his Roman Catholicism has a quite overt impact at different points. Body-soul dualism would a case in point (although of course many Protestants would also take this view, often just out of instinct). Another would be his invocation of the authority of the magisterium in the interpretation of Scripture - which, despite what Hodgson says, does not prevent controversy of the kind engendered by creationists on the Protestant side: witness Cardinal Schönborn’s support for the Intelligent Design movement. 

               I would recommend this book as an important contribution to the vibrant ongoing dialogue between science and faith which is presently taking place, though with certain reservations on some of the content as expressed above.

Rodney Holder

 

This issue’s contributors

Dave Bookless is Founder & National Director of A Rocha UK

Ian Cowley is an author and Vicar of Yaxley and Holme with Conington, in the Diocese of Ely

David Hanson is Trust Secretary of the West Yorkshire School of Christian Studies, and a Consultant Surgeon

Rodney Holder is Course Director at The Faraday Institute, St Edmund’s College, Cambridge

Stephen May is an author and Vicar of Norden in the Diocese of Manchester

Julian Ward is a retired Principle of Regents Theological College, Nantwich

Newsletter 50 (Autumn 2007)

Deity, Delusion and Deja-vu

Michael Poole

‘The Root of All Evil?’, broadcast by Channel 4 in January 2007, gave Richard Dawkins the platform. His two programmes, entitled The God Delusion and The Virus of Faith, attracted much public interest, as did his subsequent book (also called The God Delusion). ‘Religion is... bad for our children and it’s bad for you’, he asserted, cataloguing evil deeds done in the name of religion.

            Faith, according to Dawkins, is bad, like a virus A virus is associated usually with unpleasant consequences, and it spreads, hence Dawkins’ choice of this metaphor. He is already persuaded about ‘the vice of religion’ [The God Delusion, p.6] and supplies (almost exclusively) examples of ‘harmful religion’ to support his position. But a similar list of exclusively horrific deeds done for sex might also persuade an extra-terrestrial visitor that sex is bad for you. Both employ bad arguments. So much for ‘Virus’ but what about ‘Faith’? Da