Newsletter 57 (Spring '10)

Beyond the myths of our age

Philip Sampson

 It becomes increasingly urgent that we reflect on the direction our secularised society is taking. Who is there to assist us in this?

        Certainly not the 'new atheists' such as Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens. Their ‘dreary fundamentalism’, writes David Bentley Hart, consists of ‘vacuous arguments afloat on oceans of historical ignorance’, and contributes nothing to the debate. In his lively and often witty book Atheist Delusions,1

 

Hart tackles head-on the picture of modernity presented by such authors. This is refreshing but not essentially new. Many scholars have made similar points, notably Terry Eagleton who has equal wit with less asperity.2

        But not only does fashionable humanist chatter add nothing, it actively inhibits serious reflection on our secularised society. Here again, Hart echoes concerns increasingly voiced by others in recent years.3

        But now Hart makes a genuinely original contribution. It is his thesis that we need first to understand what it ‘meant for Western culture to adopt Christianity’ if we are to understand what a Western culture without Christianity would look like. For Christianity was genuinely revolutionary, ‘a truly epochal revision of humanity’s prevailing vision of reality, so pervasive in its influence and so vast in its consequences as actually to have created a new conception of the world, of history, of human nature, of time, and of the moral good’. Only when we recognise what we have lost, can we realistically assess the consequences of that loss.

        Hart looks first at the egregious myths which persistently misinform popular debate: that there is warfare between science and religion (‘Galileo’), that Christianity was the source of violent superstitions (‘witch burning’), that religion foments oppression and war (‘slavery’, ‘wars of religion’).4 His discussion and rejection of these myths is well informed and robust. It is, he argues, a simple fact of history ‘that Christendom fostered rather than hindered the development of early modern science, and that modern empiricism was born not in the so-called Age of Enlightenment but during the late Middle Ages.’ Similarly, he notes that the church exercised restraint and judicial control in witch trials; and that the “wars of religion” might better be called the ‘first wars of the modern nation state, whose principal purpose was to establish the supremacy of secular state authority over every rival power, most especially the power of the church’. Of course, this de-mythologising is not congenial to the modern mind which would rather label war “religious” than reflect on the fact that ‘for sheer scale of its violences [sic], the modern period is quite unsurpassed.’

 Christendom revisited

But Hart comes into his own with his focus on the birth of Christendom out of the culture of late antiquity. Because of the myths we have learned about both antiquity and the medieval period, we have no idea how revolutionary the advent of Christianity was, nor how much its modern critics rely upon this Christian inheritance. Hart seeks to put this right, and in large measure succeeds.

        Contrary to modern romantic preconceptions, the paganism of antiquity did nothing ‘to mitigate the brutality of the larger society - quite the contrary really - and it would be difficult to exaggerate the brutality.’ By contrast, ‘Christian teaching, from the first, placed charity at the centre of the spiritual life as no pagan cult ever had, and raised the care of widows, orphans, the sick, the imprisoned, and the poor to the level of the highest of religious obligations.’ The revolutionary doctrine of divine love saw ‘the invention of an entirely new universe of human possibilities, moral, social, intellectual, cultural, and religious.’ And these possibilities had social consequences: the building of hospitals and almshouses; the feeding of the hungry and clothing the naked as a religious duty; and the fostering of the dignity intrinsic to every human being. By contrast ‘the old gods… could never have taught their human charges to think of charity as the highest of virtues or as the way to union with the divine.’ It would be difficult to overestimate the revolutionary impact of the gospel.

        Our perception of the medieval period is correspondingly distorted. Far from epitomising “darkness and confusion” [Gibbon], ‘early medieval society… was in most ways far more just, charitable, and (ultimately) peaceful than the imperial culture it succeeded, and, immeasurably more peaceful and even more charitable (incredible as this may seem to us) than the society created by the early modern triumph of the nation state.’ The myth of humanity’s revolutionary emergence from darkness and superstition into reason and Enlightenment is colourful but wrong: ‘one can believe that faith is mere credulous assent to unfounded premises, while reason consists in a pure obedience to empirical fact, only if one is largely ignorant of both’. Along with a growing minority of scholars, Hart argues that not only science, but also notions of human rights, social justice, and legal equity are the result of our forebears’ belief that the world is a creation of the God of love.5

        This revision of popular myths about medieval society serves a greater purpose: modernity is not simply post-religious, it is specifically post-Christian, and its ethical presuppositions are ‘palliated fragments and haunting echoes of Christian moral theology’. That modernity is parasitic upon its Christian heritage raises a crucial question: ‘how long can [the spiritual ethos inspired by Christianity] persist once the faith that gave it its rationale and meaning has withered away?’ To shift metaphor, is modernity busily sawing off the branch upon which it sits?

        It is commonly assumed that the virtues inherited from Christendom will continue in the absence of the Christian beliefs which gave them birth.6 But will the ideals borrowed by the secular project prove self-sustaining? Hart doubts it, and joins the growing minority of commentators who sense a vacuum at the heart of our (post) modern world.7 Hart is aware of the danger here of instrumentally drawing on biblical resources to shore up a fading culture: ‘neither a person nor a people can will belief simply out of a dread of the consequences of its absence’.

        Of course, it may be that it is already too late to preserve what remains. So much the worse for the West, but there is a ‘new Christendom’ being born in other parts of the world. Christianity is ‘not only a cultural logic but a cosmic truth, which can never finally be defeated.’

        Hart makes an impassioned plea that ‘Christians ought not to surrender the past but should instead deepen their own collective memory of what the gospel has been in human history.’ This is too rich a book to do it justice in a short review. Read it. It will enlarge your understanding of the direction our secularised society is taking.

Notes

1.     David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions, Yale University Press, 2009.

2.     E.g. http://www.lrb.co.uk/v28/n20/terry-eagleton/lunging-flailing-mispunching

3.     E.g Jurgen Habermas, A Time of Transitions, Polity Press, 2006, p150/1.

4.     For a discussion, see Philip Sampson, Six Modern Myths, IVP, 2001.

5.     For discussion, see ‘Sustaining Democracy’ http://www.jubilee-centre.org/resources.php?topicID=0&resource_keyword=sampson&x=0&y=0

6.     ibid

7.     From Habermas (op cit) in Europe to the scholars of the ‘Cultural Christianity’ movement in China

 

'A mythical age' would be a suitable subtitle for this issue of the Network newsletter. Myths of one kind and another are the theme of Philip Sampson's review article of David Hart's Atheist Delusions, Jonathan Ingleby's review of Vinoth Ramachandra's Subverting Global Myths, and David Kettle's pieces on Health and Salvation and on Myth and reality in a recent Cambridge Union debate.

 

Cultural transition

David Kettle

Western culture is marked today by multiple transitions - some quite new, others under way for a generation and more. Some are readily noticed and named, such as the employment of new technologies. Others lie deeper in our understanding of the world, ourselves, and life itself. While we may sense these, we find them hard to grasp. At such deeper levels, from what, and to what, is our culture moving, in ways relevant to the context of God's good purposes for his people?

        The responsibility of discernment in such matters of 'deep culture' (to use Harold Turner's term) is a pressing challenge for Christians, if we are to take bearings well for our vocation today.

 Lesslie Newbigin

At two well-attended conferences held in December 2009 to mark the centenary of Lesslie Newbigin, Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen described Newbigin as someone who felt that he was, like St Augustine of Hippo, living in a transitional era, amidst the ending of an empire. For St Augustine it was the Roman Empire ; for Newbigin it was 'the worldwide intellectual empire, the Enlightenment'.

        While Newbigin came to focus upon the Enlightenment, it was Sydney Evan's reference, in a sermon, to 'the end of renaissance man' which resonated for Newbigin with his sense of living perhaps 'at a moment of profound change'. Later he would quote Michael Polanyi's observation that the 'incandescence' of the past four or five centuries 'has fed on the combustion of the Christian heritage in the oxygen of Greek rationalism, and when the fuel was exhausted, the critical framework itself burnt away'. Here are transitions on a grand scale indeed.

 Secularisation

Some have seen ours as a time of transition from a religious to a secular age. Sociologists have found support for this in the statistics of religious decline in the West (see 'Godless Europe?' , ACCESS No. 706). Today, on the other hand, some speak of the rise of a post-secular age. Little sign of this is evident to Christians battling against restrictive new legislation, however. Meanwhile some authors have probed secularisation beyond the familiar measures, tracing a deeper secular shift in social imagination and sensibilities. This trend is noted by Michael Paul Gallagher (ACCESS No. 704) and exemplified by Charles Taylor's A Secular Age.

 Post-Christendom

Some see ours as a time of transition from Christendom to post-Christendom. We are coming to see that, like secularism, a post-Christendom situation involves the loss of more than formal social authority for religion; like secularism, it involves a loss of a distinctively Christian imagination. What this loss portends is urged by David Hart in his Atheist Delusions (see lead article). It is stated by Jürgen Habermas, who in Time of Transitions (2006) writes bluntly: 'Christianity, and nothing else, is the ultimate foundation of liberty, conscience, human rights, and democracy, the benchmarks of Western civilisation. To this day we have no other options... We continue to nourish ourselves from this source. Everything else is postmodern chatter.'

 Postmodernity

Some see ours as a time of transition from modernity to postmodernity. Now the label 'postmodern' has meanings as plural as the world it conceives. Denoting as it so often does the claim that all truth is relative, leaving only the 'will to power', it fails to break authentic new ground beyond modernity; it is an offshoot of modernity and remains dependent upon it. This was Lesslie Newbigin's view, as we were reminded by Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, who describes our cultural transition rather as one from modernity to late modernity. Perhaps we may say that if Newbigin was a post-modern before his time he was authentically, Christianly, post-modern in a way that contemporary postmodernism in general is not.

        According to Rein Staal, there have been others like him. In 'The forgotten story of postmodernity' (ACCESS No. 713), Staal recalls a series of 'pre-emptive postmoderns': European thinkers - mostly theists, and including Romano Guardini, Martin Buber and Gabriel Marcel - who 'saw that the clash between the naturalistic reductionism of modernity and postmodern subjectivism is a family quarrel predicated upon the eclipse of the person'. This points to a recovery of 'the person' as a key element in the renewal of a Christian trajectory beyond modernity. Here is another clue to where we stand today.

        For Christians the backdrop to all such profiles of transition is, of course, the provisionality of the saeculum itself and of that 'moment' of transition we call the eschaton.

        We need resources of discernment which, as Veil-Matti Kärkkäinen expressed it, will 'help the church in the beginning of the third millennium to reappraise her mission and existence in the world'.

DK

 

Health and salvation

David Kettle

Mike Fitzpatrick declares himself a long-standing admirer of celebrity chef Nigel Slater's writings and recipes;1 He takes a dim view, however, of the chef's remarks when interviewed by Men's Health magazine.2 Asked, were the prime minister to consult him, how he would advise to improve the nation's diet, Slater replied: 'a free health check for everyone. The sort of really comprehensive annual one I pay a thousand quid for! Seeing the true state of your health in black and white would make anyone think more seriously about what they put in their mouth.'

        While acknowledging the value of strategic screening of one kind and another, Fitzpatrick regards as far more dubious the more general tests considered appropriate by many employers - let alone the comprehensive health assessments on private offer. He challenges their underlying central assumption that "the true state of your health" can be revealed by biochemical study of fluids or by imaging body tissues. Slater is mistaken, he says, to see this information as providing the basis for healthy eating - which Fitzpatrick calls 'the highest form of ethical virtue recognised in contemporary society'.

        'Now that health has replaced heaven (in either terrestrial or celestial forms) as the goal of human existence', he writes, 'health has been reduced to the anatomical and physiological functions of the human organism. The highest aspiration of the modern individual is biological survival, complemented by the state of bovine contentment celebrated as "happiness" by government advisers, a condition to be achieved by making healthy lifestyle choices, appropriately corrected by short courses of cognitive behavioural therapy.'

        Fitzpatrick appears to have two interwoven converns. First, the fact that 'subjecting the body to a relentless regime of prevention and surveillance is unlikely to make much difference to the duration of our animal existence'. Second, that doing so 'is certain to reduce the scope of our humanity' - because it projects a world constructed by narcissism and an ultimate terror of death. On this Fitzpatrick quotes Terry Eagleton, for whom the contemporary preoccupation with health reflects 'a fantasy of mastering the unmasterable, a disavowal of death, a refusal of the limit which is ourselves.'3

        No doubt the challenge responsibly to manage one's health acquires a new urgency today among the overweight (now reported to be more numerous than the underfed), and for whom diseases associated with obesity can often be avoided by accessible lifestyle choices. This is important. But to aspire for complete mastery of one's body is another matter. There is a fantasy here which arguably has roots in modern society's fundamental vision of (and faith in) 'cultivation' and of what Ernst Gellner calls a 'garden' culture. Unlike (premodern) 'wild' cultures which reproduce themselves without conscious design, supervision, surveillance or special nutrition, 'garden' cultures 'need the constant attention of the gardener, as a moment of neglect or mere absent-mindedness would return it from the state from which it had emerged'.4 Mastery of our own bodies extends today not only to their 'cultivation' but to their 'design' through cosmetic surgery and implants - with further possibilities to hand from genetic screening.

        The replacement  (as Fitzpatrick puts it) of heaven by health as the goal of human existence involves, to be sure, a sea change. And yet we might muse at John Knowles' description of what Christianity traditionally meant for the average churchgoer: 'a sort of abstract force for good, like nutrition'.5 While this is by no means to be scorned - it carries echoes of vital New Testament themes - it clearly omits vital dimensions of Christian faith. The contemporary 'fetishism of the body' (as Fitzpatrick calls it) might therefore provoke us to reflect on ways of understanding and commending the faith which involve crucially more than an invitation to self-nutrition.

Notes

1.     Mike Fitzpatrick, 'The true state of your health', British Journal of General Practice, January 2008, p. 64.

2.     Nigel Slater, 'Eating his words', Men's Health, 2007, pp.171-2.

3.     Terry Eagleton, After theory, Allen Lane , 2003.

4.     Zygmunt Bauman, Legislators and Interpreters, Polity Press, 1987, p. 51.

5.     Quoted in Peter Moore, Disarming the Secular Gods, IVP, 1989, p. 105.

 

Myth and Reality in a Cambridge Union Debate

"This house believes that faith is essential to the democratic debate". Such was the motion debated at Cambridge University Union in the first national Inter Faith week in November 2009, and organised in collaboration with the East of England Faiths Council.

        Those opposing the motion presented two main arguments. First, faith is a matter of believing certain things to be true without reasonable evidence let alone proof. A democratic society, however, is founded on reasoning and facts. One cannot reason with people of faith, and therefore they should leave their faith at home when contributing to public reasoning. Otherwise, the democratic debate will be marred by irrationality and ridden with conflict. Second, people of faith claim that their beliefs carry the authority of sacred scriptures or of ordained religious institutions and their leaders. Therefore people of faith, rather than seeing their beliefs as a private choice, claim authority to impose their beliefs on everyone else (euthanasia and abortion policies were repeatedly cited). This is oppressive.

        The Christian speaker, Jonathan Chaplin, easily addressed these two familiar - not to say threadbare - arguments. Regarding the 'irrationality' of faith, he pointed out that faith sponsors a great deal of reasoning (he expressed amazement that the opposition speakers seemed not to have engaged with this) and that this provides a much richer, more robust moral discourse than secularist 'esperanto'. The Jewish speaker (Vivian Wineman, President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews) pointed out that most secularist moral principles originated themselves in religious ones.

        Regarding the 'oppressiveness' of faith, Jonathan Chaplin pointed out that in a democracy when legislation is agreed by majority vote of parliament, it is not uncommon for the minority opposed to this legislation to feel personally oppressed by its coercive, legal status; however, they do not seek to ban the democratic process responsible for this. Therefore to ban the democratic process when it owes much to religious inspiration, and to ban it for this reason, is to exclude religion unreasonably. This would make secularists guilty precisely of the kind of narrow, bigoted exclusiveness which they attack in religious fundamentalism. To allow faith to contribute to democratic debate is not to privilege it, but to be inclusive.

        These two secularist arguments (other subsidiary arguments also featured in the debate) raise the question how widespread are myth and reality in contemporary perceptions of religion. There is a challenge to Christians today, to help people in a secular society encounter the reality of Christian faith and learn to scorn the myths.

DK

Debate in the media

Vincent Nichols, at his enthronement as Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster in May 2009, appealed for a more reasoned public debate in Britain . "This dialogue needs to go beyond the superficial and slogans," he said. "Respectful dialogue is crucial today and I salute all who seek to engage in it. In this the media have such an important part to play, not by accentuating difference and conflict, but by enhancing creative conversation.
        "Let us be a society in which we genuinely listen to each other, in which sincere disagreement is not made out to be insult or harassment, in which reasoned principles are not construed as prejudice and in which we are prepared to attribute to each other the best and not the worst of motives."

Comment: LIVING ICONS

Ian Cowley

Yesterday  I was listening to a talk about icons. The speaker asked us to think about ourselves and our own lives being “living icons”, reflecting something of our relationship with God to the world. I started to think about how those around me might respond to this. For myself, I am increasingly aware that the reality of my relationship with God is as much about woundedness and struggle as it is about comfort and joy. But is this what our culture encourages us to reflect?

        The psalms certainly offer us a picture (an icon perhaps?) of a spirituality that is full of pain and struggle. This morning I was reading Psalm 77. “I thought of God and I moaned”, says verse 3. How does this fit with the preoccupations of our culture, which seems only interested in winners, in success and achievement? Are we in danger of buying into a myth of what relationship with God is about? Walter Brueggemann says, “The Psalms are profoundly subversive of the dominant culture, which wants to deny and cover over the darkness we are called to enter.”

        The calling of those who seek to follow Christ is to be formed into the mind of Christ, who did not cling to power and success but emptied himself taking the form of a slave. The wisdom of God is indeed foolishness to the spirit of our age. It is in this very culture that the need is greatest for Christian witness which embraces and reflects servanthood and vulnerability. This is where the grace of God in Christ Jesus is to be found.

 

Twentieth century pioneers of mission to Western Culture

Joe Oldham

Keith Clements

Joseph Houldsworth (‘Joe’) Oldham (1874-1969), Scottish layman, was a foremost ecumenical pioneer of missionary and social thought who brought a critical awareness to western Christianity’s relation to its own and other cultures. Coming to an evangelical Christian commitment while a student at Oxford , he served for three years as a YMCA missionary in the Punjab, then studied theology at Edinburgh and Halle , Germany . While working as mission study secretary for the United Free Church of Scotland he was recruited by John R. Mott as secretary for the 1910 Edinburgh World Missionary Conference – generally seen as the birth of the modern ecumenical movement – and was then appointed secretary of its continuation committee in which capacity he founded and edited the influential International Review of Missions, and was instrumental in the eventual creation of the International Missionary Council (1921). Oldham continued as one of the most creative ecumenical pioneers, leading international engagement with the issues of race, colonial policy in Africa, education and the rise of totalitarianism in Europe . He was the pivotal study organiser for the 1937 Oxford Conference on Church, Community and State, and the chief architect of the World Council of Churches whose constitution was laid down in 1938.

        From 1938 ‘retirement’ for Oldham meant full-time activity on several new levels. He founded and chaired ‘The Moot’, a circle of intellectuals who met two or three times a year from 1938 to 1947 to consider faith, Christian and values and society, and included notables such as T.S. Eliot, Walter Moberly, Karl Mannheim, John Baillie and (later) Michael Polanyi. On the outbreak of war in 1939 he started the weekly Christian News-Letter which stimulated debate on faith and public affairs among a wide popular readership. In 1942 he set up the Christian Frontier Council, designed to bring lay people, Christian and otherwise, into common engagement with responsibilities in ‘secular’ society. Until his eighties he was a prolific writer.

        At every stage of his career, Oldham showed an unusual awareness of the tension that must exist between the Christian missionary calling, the Christian’s own cultural assumptions and the culture of the society in which he or she is working. Nowhere was this more urgent than in western society itself which, as revealed by the conflict of 1914-18, was in need of ‘Christianising’ as much as any other. In his 1916 book The World and the Gospel - a remarkable survey of the worldwide Christian scene in the context of war – he stated: ‘The Christian protest against the unchristian forces in social and national life must be clearer, sharper and more patent than it has been in the past. It may be that the Church as it was before the war could never have evangelized the world; that its witness had not the penetrating force necessary for so gigantic an undertaking; that before God could answer the prayers of His people some deep-seated evil had to be removed, however terrible the cost.’ (p21)  Oldham backs up his point by referring to the alarming results of recent surveys into child poverty in England: ‘It may be doubted whether a Church that was willing to tolerate a state of things that denied to a large section of the population the elementary conditions of health and happiness possessed the moral passion which would enable it to evangelize the world.’ There had to be a new reclamation of the ‘secular’ areas of life, not least that of commerce and industry, for the gospel and the building of true human community.

        Oldham’s most substantial book was Christianity and the Race Problem (1924), the pioneer work on an issue which was arguably to be Christianity’s major challenge of the century, faced as it was by the legacy of colonialism and slavery, and by the new racist tyranny in Europe, segregation in the USA and apartheid in South Africa. It rigorously challenged the respectability being given to racism by certain western intellectuals and their background of cultural assumptions, and contains what is perhaps his most famous statement: ‘Christianity is not primarily a philosophy but a crusade.  . . Hence when Christians find in the world a state of things that is not in accord with the truth which they have learned from Christ, their concern is not that it should be explained but that it should be ended.’

        The growing menace from Nazi Germany was viewed by Oldham as exposing the ultimate form of a disease endemic throughout western society: the growth of a state entirely secularist in its premisses, bending to its will a culture wholly utilitarian and with no regard for that element of freedom and responsibility which in Christian eyes must be the mark of a truly moral ordering of society. This for him was the crucial issue underlying the whole agenda of the 1937 Oxford Conference, and which led him to setting up the ‘The Moot’. It is noteworthy that the most influential contributor to the Moot was Karl Mannheim, a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany whose diagnosis of modern society as caught between the two necessities of ‘planning’ and ‘freedom’ seemed to Oldham exactly right. As well as the overt totalitarianism threatening from outside, there was the menace of a creeping totalitarianism within. When war broke out in 1939, Oldham went on record, in print and on the air, as declaring that defeating Hitler was not enough – Britain must identify what values it was fighting for beyond its own survival. He at first envisaged the Moot as forming the nucleus of an ‘order’ of people in influential positions in society (civil service, higher education, industry etc) who could challenge the slide towards conformity to purely utilitarian values and promote justice and community. This never actually transpired, but what did eventuate through the Christian News-Letter was an extraordinarily wide network of people eager for information and discussion on burning issues of the day in public life. Oldham chose for his collaborators and writers whoever could challenge moral defeatism, narrow self-interest and national insularity; and for his topics was happy to include whatever might make people think hard on the values needed for a society worth fighting for and a Europe worth reconstructing, even if it meant radical changes in attitudes. Industrial relations, family life and the emerging new roles of women, youth attitudes, the irrelevance of much church activity to people’s real problems, teaching as a vocation, the significance of science, Britain’s role in the post-war world . . . all were grist to Oldham’s mill. His whole enterprise may be said to be the promotion of a self-critical national loyalty founded on a personalist, relational view of humanity as disclosed in the gospel.

        On social issues Oldham he looked for wisdom from ‘the best minds’, and it was often quipped that his motto must surely be ‘Find out where power lies and then take it to lunch at the Athenaeum’ – leading to the criticism that he tended to the paternalistic rather than the prophetic. ‘Prophecy’, however, can just be a euphemism for sloppy rhetoric, not least in ecumenical circles, and Oldham at his best exemplifies how the prophetic can and must be channelled into the practical. It was he who coined the phrase ‘the responsible society’ which effectively became the motto of ecumenical social thinking from the inauguration of the WCC in 1948 until its fourth assembly in 1968 – and its intention if not its actual phraseology would stand revisiting today

 

See further K. Clements, Faith on the Frontier. A life of J.H. Oldham (T. & T. Clark/WCC 1999), and K. Clements (ed.) The Moot Papers. Faith, freedom and Society 1938-44 ( London : T. & T. Clark/Continuum 2009).

 

Book Reviews

Justin Thacker, Postmodernism and the Ethics of Theological Knowledge, Ashgate 2007, 137pp, £45.

… ‘we only know God to the extent that we also love others’ (p.127). This is the conclusion Justin Thacker reaches in his book Postmodernism and the Ethics of Theological Knowledge. This simple piece of Christian wisdom comes at the end of a remarkable survey of two significant postmodern thinkers, Rorty and Lyotard, and how best to respond to their challenges of the Christian faith. Along the way Thacker engages with modern theologians from whom he draws together a response which emphases the importance of participatory knowledge of Christ as the way of understanding relational revelation. For Thacker ‘our knowledge of God and our love of others are radically integrated because both are dependent upon our tacit participation in the rationality of Jesus Christ’. This leads to a further bold statement: ‘Christianity is not a theoretical discourse, but is rather a practical agapeistic activity which is characterised by self-sacrificial service for the other.’ (ibid).

        Thacker does not respond to Rorty and Lyotard by offering an epistemological defence of Christian rationality. This is because ethics not epistemology is the key to understanding the challenge of these two postmodernists; they are misunderstood if treated as critics of Christianity’s epistemology as both are more concerned about the ethical rather than the epistemological issues of knowledge. Thacker therefore reads both Rorty and Lyotard as being deliberately paradoxical about the viability of their own epistemological enterprises. This is because they are fundamentally critical of the abuse of power that they see expressed in authoritative claims to knowledge, including claims to universal truth. Rorty seeks a ‘community of social justice embodied’ (p.19) which does not rely on the imposition of its own ideas to persuade others to live likewise; and Lyotard seeks a form of reflective judgement in which conflict between or within majorities and minorities ‘can be resolved as long as it is accompanied by a sense of the sublime’ (p.34). Christianity is demonstrably false - it is neither of these - until it demonstrates otherwise.

        For Thacker, both Rorty and Lyotard misjudge Christian knowledge if they treat it as just a violent discourse, i.e. that it is a totalising narrative that imposes its own truth. Rather Christian knowledge is more truly about self-sacrificial love discovered in the participatory knowledge of Christ’s life. Rorty and Lyotard demand a demonstration of Christianity that is non-violent; what they have seen is actually the opposite. As Thacker says ‘What is required is a demonstration that the Christian faith is not an oppressive, violent narrative, but rather one that is characterised by love.’ (p.36). Thacker’s response is as follows:

.. theological knowing consists in a perichoretic participation in God which operates tactictly to enable a pneumatological interpretation of the revelation of Jesus Christ. (p.37)

Unpacking this agenda leads Thacker through the thought of Morna Hooker, Alan Torrance and Miroslav Volf. The theme Thacker is tracing is that of perichoresis – interpenetration; and his main point is that there is some kind of revelational interpenetration of human reality by the divine which allows for a reciprocal engagement by humanity with divinity. This happens in the person of Jesus, and although the relationship between God and humanity in Christ is asymmetrical the knowledge of divinity is both real and effective when realised in loving human relationships.

        Drawing on Polanyi, Thacker argues that this perichoretic model of knowledge is a kind of tacit form of knowledge. In order to show that this is the case Thacker first explores the nature of revelation. He follows Bauckham in affirming that revelation is not just God illustrated in Jesus or even that Jesus shows us that the universal knowledge of God in humanity is possible; rather, as Bauckham argues, that “‘Jesus reveals the unique presence and action of God which is Jesus’ own history ‘” (p.66). In Jesus we discover that we only know God by being known by God and that that is a knowledge by acquaintance in which our knowledge of God remains analogical because God’s subjectivity is a mystery in that his knowing of us is a priori. That this knowledge has propositional implications does not mean that it is primarily propositional. However its propositional truth can be disputed: we first of all know Jesus as Lord before we declare that Jesus is Lord but we do affirm his Lordship as true, but true to those by whom this truth is grasped (p.78).

 In terms of the NT, this idea comes out very clearly. It is not the case that Jesus presents certain ideas, enables his followers to understand them and then invites them to accept them (the propositional model). Rather, he simply invites them to know him immediately and directly. (p.78)

 We are not just given raw data or propositions to accept; rather we are engaged by Jesus in such a way that our perceptions and lives are changed. We may have data and propositions but still not know Jesus. Like the disciples on the road to Emmaus there needs to be an interpretation that we both receive and respond to for us to understand. For this to happen there is the need to have the mind of Christ to interpret Christ. There is an active engagement by God with us so that we can know God in a relationship with him. This happens through the work of the Holy Spirit. But Thacker is clear that ‘our knowledge will be consonant with the degree of ethical sanctification that is evident’! (p.73 ft.49)

        ‘For Polanyi it is only in the exercise of our subjectivity that a true objectivity is realised.’ (p.87) But this is more that a mere assertion of the need for effort to know and therefore a capitulation to the pragmatism of Rorty and Lyotard. Explicit knowledge relies on a bedrock of tacit knowledge that has developed from the process of allowing reality to indwell us and by us imaginatively indwelling reality. Where Thacker wants to arrive is the proposal that ‘our knowledge of God and our love of the Other are to a large extent the same phenomenon’ (p.99). The appropriate form of knowing others, of indwelling them in love, is the very way by which God has revealed himself to indwell us in Jesus.

        The three converging arguments Thacker has been preparing for in responding to Rorty and Lyotard are these:

1.      that human knowing of the kind found in knowing God is participatory knowledge that has both ethical and epistemological implications;

2.      that this kind of knowledge is precisely what is implied in knowing Jesus: we love God in the love of neighbour as we find ourselves conforming to the life of Christ;

3.      that conforming to the mind of Christ includes a certain kind of loving which Christ exemplifies in humble service and into which we enter as the way of knowing God.

This is a demanding book from which I have learnt a great deal. I can hardly do justice to the extraordinary summaries and surveys of major thinkers and theological themes. I would recommend it to anyone who wants to explore postmodernism from a confident Christian perspective. But be ready to read slowly and to be challenged by the implications for daily Christian life. I found this book a spiritual experience that brought me closer to Christ as I was drawn to reflect and renew my daily following of Jesus.

Tim Dakin

 

Vinoth Ramachandra, Subverting Global Myths: Theology and the public issues shaping our world, SPCK, 2008, 304pp., £12.99

Here it will suffice to note that, far from operating in a sanitised social space, markets and business corporations inhabit a world (largely of their own making) of ruthless marketing techniques, hostile takeovers, chronic unemployment, subsistence wages, industrial espionage and environmental degradation. These are all profoundly moral issues. (p. 163)

 

Fighting talk, and of the best sort! With a wealth of illustration and cross-reference Vinoth Ramachandra takes on the myths (‘stories that we live by’) of the twenty first century and subjects them to a searching Christian critique. In a relatively brief compass and yet without any loss of profundity, he picks out the key public issues we, as Christians, ought to be tackling, providing a so welcome contrast to the torrent of books about ‘experience’ or the minutiae of the Christian sub-culture. 

        I very much appreciate the way Ramachandra does not deal in vague generalities despite the size of his subject. Again and again he gets down to detailed discussion of a most helpful sort. His masterly summary of just-war theory and his attack on the ideology that lies behind genetic engineering are just two examples drawn at random. He is almost always balanced and fair, not setting up straw men to be knocked down by Christian polemics, as is often the habit of Christian writers. Only in the last chapter, where some of his arguments against postcolonial academics are inclined to be ad hominem, does this standard slip a little.

        It is also an important recommendation that the book is written from a non-Western perspective. This provides an appropriate challenge to the worldview that still reads history as primarily Western driven. Almost all the myths mentioned – the nature of terrorism and religious violence, the discourse of human rights and multiculturalism, the ideology of science – are rightly seen as products of the European Enlightenment. Even postcolonialism, which might appear to be an exception, seems to stem from Western academia. In a good sense, Ramachandra shines an outsider’s light on our Western mythologies. An example would be the way, in the last chapter, he strives to ‘decentre history’ and to dismantle any idea that the colonial legacy was somehow good after all.

        This virtue has its downside, but it has to do more with context than author. Ramachandra lives in a world where the big issues, such as those represented in his catalogue of myths, are open to debate and can therefore be contested by Christian people. (I am reminded of the many discussions I have had while travelling on Indian railways.) But I suspect the book will be marketed mainly in the West. Here, since the advent of postmodernism, the myths under discussion are much smaller, ranging from the X Factor to football! It is not that the big myths are not operative, of course, but nobody wants to talk about them.

        So then, very much ‘the gospel for our culture’ – if anybody is listening. 

Jonathan Ingleby

 

Contributors

Keith Clements is an author and former General Secretary of the Council of European Churches

Ian Cowley is Vocations and Spirituality Co-ordinator in the Diocese of Salisbury

Tim Dakin is General Secretary of Church Mission Society

Philip Sampson is an author and former psychotherapist and Social Science Research Fellow at the University of Southampton

Jonathan Ingleby is a former Lecturer in Mission at Redcliffe College

 

Newsletter 58 (Summer '10)

Faith, freedom and illiberal liberalism

David Kettle

The rhetoric of freedom has reached a new intensity in Britain in recent decades. It is hard to think of anything more exalted today in public discourse than freedom of choice for individuals and a free market for goods and services. In the name of freedom governments have passed legislation to manage and direct - in a more comprehensive way than ever in the past - social practice . The exercise of choice is held up as personal fulfilment.  The rhetoric of  freedom permeates the policy statements of social institutions in mass society - business, politics, the media, education - exalting 'free trade', a 'free and tolerant' society, and 'more choice' for citizens, customers, patients and pupils.

            There have indeed been major victories to celebrate for personal and social freedom. However, alongside this has grown an awareness that - ironically - much done in recent decades, while appealing to liberty, has worked precisely against it. When catalogued, such developments are wide ranging.

            To one hand, 'free market' ideology has disembedded the enterprise of trade from considerations of the common good1, bringing a widening income gap between the rich and poor,2 the loss of health and social well-being associated with inequality,3 and the grievous loss of hard-won freedom of social mobility achieved following the Second World War. The deregulation of banking and the ensuing debt crisis has contributed further to this harm. The promulgation of intellectual property rights, intended to free up research and development for profitable trading, is threatening public access to and benefit both from science and from traditional 'commons'.4 Self-promotion by retailers as purveyors of choice is mocked by the frustrating reality for customers of 'clone towns' reflecting a loss of diversity analogous to the loss of biodiversity in industrialised farming. Surveillance by commercial companies limits individual freedom of purchase, while government use of  public surveillance replaces cultivation of responsible judgement by micro-management through the threat of prosecution.5 Laws introduced as anti-terrorism measures are employed by the police and state agencies to other ends of their own. One does not have to defer to the politics of Tariq Ali to recognise the truth in what he says: 'we live in a world where to question the market and system based on the market is in itself considered - you know - outrageous.... so curiously enough all the dogmas that were associated with the practice of communism particularly Stalinism and the regimes of Eastern Europe we are now beginning to see - I hate to say this but you know often reading the media in Britain reminds me of Brezhnev's Russia - I mean lack of diversity, lack of serious discussion, victimising of individuals, a refusal to look at systemic problems - it's extremely worrying'.6

            Legislation passed in pursuit of individual well-being, while it is well intentioned and often has beneficial effects, sometimes also undermines freedoms. Excessive health and safety regulation and criminal record checks have eroded the freedom of informal associations and communities to operate in their traditional way. The legalisation (in the name of  'choice') of that which was previously illegal sometimes cuts two ways. Thus a woman's legal freedom to have her unborn child aborted on demand has removed that child's right to be upheld in life by the one person whose cooperation is indispensable for the first nine months following conception; while the campaign for freedom legally to help a person commit suicide threatens the freedom of others who may consequently in future feel obliged to consent to euthanasia. Freedom from the commitment of couples to lifelong marriage has adversely affected  a generation of children born of their partnerships.

            Specifically, legislation intended to free people from discrimination on grounds such as gender or race has been ambiguous in its effects. Equal opportunity legislation has prompted job interview practices which rigidly abstract from, rather than engage with the whole reality of, unique persons, personal histories and job references. Opposition to sexism, racism etc has spawned a 'fundamentalist' ideology employed by some social groups to pursue power for themselves and dictate the practice and speech of others.7

            Also, 'Secular fundamentalism' has surfaced in an increasingly dogmatic and intolerant public culture.8 This is a new development. In liberal democracy in the past, Christians have themselves shared in the general liberties associated with the European Enlightenment: freedom of conscience, freedom to question, freedom of speech. Any Christian concerns over freedom were typically over the fact that secular society was prone to celebrate license in the name of freedom. Today, however, it is different: a new illiberal liberalism threatens the proper freedom of Christians and Christian institutions themselves, and does so precisely in the name of 'freedom'.9

            Rene Girard speaks of a hidden totalitarian movement emerging in the 20th century which takes over, 'radicalises' and de-moralises the Christian concern for the oppressed. This movements sees in Christianity itself 'nothing but violent oppression', denouncing the Christian concern for victims as  'hypocritical and a pale imitation of the authentic crusade against oppression and persecution for which they would carry the banner themselves'. In reality, however, this movement produces 'a return to all sorts of pagan practices: abortion, euthanasia, sexual undifferentiation, Roman circus games galore but without real victims, etc.' This totalitarianism, writes Girard in 2001, 'does not openly oppose Christianity but outflanks it on its left wing'.10

            Such opposition to Christianity has more recently, however, become open and vocal. Typically it sees Christians as demanding an improper freedom to pursue their 'private' interests at the expense of others.

            Christians, for their part, will insist that Christian freedom is about  a lived exploration of freedom and of the meaning of freedom. They will claim the freedom publicly to witness to this exploration, and call their opponents to join them in this. Indeed Western liberal society is historically indebted to Christianity for its own celebration of freedom. George Carey writes 'It is my firm view that our society owes more to our Christian heritage than it realises and to overlook this inheritance of faith will lead to the watering down of the very values of tolerance, openness, inclusion and democracy that we claim are central to all we stand for.'11

            It is vital for the good of Western society that there is a readiness to engage in dialogue with Christians over the meaning of freedom. Andrew Kirk called for such a dialogue in the 1990's12. Yet such dialogue is refused because Christians are seen as opposed to freedom.

            Where lies the heart of this impasse? It lies in unacknowledged liberal assumptions about the nature of freedom. Thinkers in the liberal tradition have tended to see the great enemy of freedom as unquestioned dogma, tradition and authority, and to see freedom as brought by the free exercise of reason. Lesslie Newbigin said:

The temptation of liberalism is to think that we are by nature free minds, and that free minds, unfettered by tradition or external authority, can find the truth. But we are not naturally free. We are in bondage to sin and alienated from the truth. That is the terrible reality which is placarded before our eyes in the crucifixion of the living Word of God. And so Jesus says: "If you continue in my teaching you will truly be my disciples and you will know the truth and the truth will set you free". We do not come to the truth by free enquiry; we have to be set free by the truth.13

            Contrary to liberal assumptions, freedom is given in the first instance from beyond ourselves, by God - the unsurpassable freedom, fundamentally, of giving ourselves as a living, loving sacrifice. Loss of freedom, or bondage, correspondingly, while it may press upon us from outside may also trap us from within. Therefore we cannot assume, as is the liberal temptation, that doctrines or traditions are against freedom, even though they may claim to honour freedom, or that commitment to them amounts to personal bondage; nor can we assume that what rises from within us represents our freedom, even if it is exalted in our culture as the very essence of individual fulfilment. On both counts, discrimination is required - discrimination which is itself a gift from God.

            Such discrimination is integral to faith. Faith is by no means blind, and the liberal aversion to faith on this false premise has, as Philip Sampson argues (ACCESS No. 727), been most harmful. It has, among other things, contributed to narrowed utilitarian and ideological practices of reasoning. Despite the Enlightenment association of freedom with reason, in recent  decades it has often been precisely public programmes of rationalisation which have threatened freedom, in thrall to ideological dogmas all the more dominant for being unacknowledged. As we might put it, today's illiberal liberalism is rooted in an irrational rationalisation (pace footnote 9!). Greater freedom requires a richer rationality of the sort which Rowan Williams commends (ACCESS No. 730). Justin Thacker has offered a way of framing this in the 'rationality of Christ'14. It is upon such fundamental matters as these that dialogue is needed between secularists and Christians if the association between reason and freedom is to be renewed, and the distortions of illiberal liberalism checked.

Notes

1.     On the social disembedding of economic enterprise in 'market' economics, see M. Bloch & J. Parry, Money and the Morality of Exchange, Cambridge University Press, 1989, introductory essay. 

2.     See, for example, the report of the National Equality Panel, January 26, 2010.

3.     See especially Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies

4.     For an expression of concern over this threat see The Manchester Manifesto -       www.isei.manchester.ac.uk/TheManchesterManifesto.pdf

5.     On surveillance see especially David Lyon, Surveillance Society: Monitoring Everyday Life, Open       University Press, 2001, and other writings by this author. See also research conducted recently in Britain by Big Brother Watch.

6.     Start the Week, BBC Radio 4, 7th December 2009.

7.     See for example David Bromwich, Politics by Other Means: Higher Education and Group Thinking, Yale   University Press, 1992. Chapter Four is titled 'The New Fundamentalists'.

8.     The term 'secular fundamentalist' has been used by, for example, John Gray; see his 'Atheist Delusions', The Guardian, Saturday 15 March 2008.

9.     Lord Justice Laws, denying Gary McFarlane permission to appeal against his dismissal by Relate for refusing to offer sexual counselling to same-sex partners on religious grounds, said 'in the eye of everyone save the believer religious faith is necessarily subjective... the promulgation of law for the protection of a position held purely on religious grounds cannot therefore be justified. It is irrational, as preferring the subjective over the objective. But it is also divisive, capricious and arbitrary... The law of a theocracy is dictated without option to the people...'

10.  René Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, Orbis Books, 2001, pp 180-81.

11.  George Carey, The Times, 7th January 2010

12.  See J. Andrew Kirk, The Meaning of Freedom: A Study of Secular, Muslim and Christian Views,         Paternoster, 1998

13.  Newbigin, 'A Decent Debate on Doctrine', talk given to URC Bromley District Council, July 1993. A substantially revised version was published an a Gear booklet, A Decent Debate About Doctrine.

14.  See Justin Thacker, Postmodernism and the Ethics of Theological Knowledge, Ashgate, 2007, reviewed in Newsletter 57.  

 

The secularization of blasphemy

Jenny Taylor

The demise of free speech under the assault of Islamists in Britain is a fact.  The culture has shifted as Lesslie Newbigin and Michael Polanyi saw it would under the impact of violence and its threat.   English civilization is built on a doctrine of tolerance, hammered out in the 17th century, which is different from the anti-religious variant of it which prevails on the continent after the demise of tyranny.  This toleration is an active principle rooted in Christianity, it requires public assent, and it is never absolute.1  ‘Should the principles of unrestricted violence be generally accepted, the English could not survive’ says Polanyi in a famous anglophile essay in Political Quarterly in 1943.

            His words were prescient, but in ways he could not then have foreseen.  The GfK NOP 2006 Social Research Survey on Muslim Attitudes  carried out after the London tube bombings, indicated that only three per cent of 1,000 Muslims polled took a consistently pro-Freedom of Speech line on a range of questions given them about controversial issues.  73% said it was acceptable for religious or political groups to use violence.2

            For the principles of unrestricted violence to prevail, violence is not necessary more than occasionally; the underlying menace of it is adequate to cause a chilling effect on what may be thought and said.  Kenan Malik in his new book From Fatwa to Jihad says that in less than 20 years, liberal secularism has capitulated before the rage of Islam.  Hanif Kureishi, author of the Black Bag says ‘most people, most writers want to keep their head downs, live a quiet life.  They don’t want a bomb in the letterbox.  They have succumbed to the fear' (Malik 2009: 202).

            According to Malik, Rushdie’s critics may not have won the battle against the publication of Satanic Verses but they ‘won the war by pounding into the liberal consciousness the belief that giving offence was morally despicable.’ Such a belief (replacing the Christian doctrine of tolerance) makes it easier to give offence.  The outcome is an internalisation of the fatwa, a form of self-censorship which has exactly the same effect as a physical ghetto: they limit one’s freedom.  The mental no-go areas of contemporary authorship are described by Monica Ali, who was attacked both by Muslims and the left (notably Germaine Greer) for Brick Lane.  ‘The way that Random House dropped The Jewel of Medina would have been unthinkable in the pre-Rushdie era’ she believes.  ‘What is really dangerous is when you don’t know that you’ve censored yourself . . . (cited in Malik 2009:197).

            This is the secularization of blasphemy - and the irony was complete when Meurig Llwyd Williams, Anglican archdeacon of Bangor , was forced to resign after he included a drawing, reprinted from the French newspaper Le Soir, in the church paper Y Llan. It showed Muhammed sitting on a heavenly cloud with God and Buddha and being told: ‘Don't complain - we've all been caricatured here.’  All copies of the issue of the paper were pulped – by order of the Church. 

            'Libel tourism' is a further manifestation of freedom's retreat. Foreign businessmen like the Saudi Khalid Bin Mafouz retain UK libel lawyers to stifle publication of books or articles that investigate the links between gulf oil money and terrorism. The clearest recent British example of this was the law suit against Cambridge University Press which resulted in the removal from the bookshelves of Alms for Jihad: Charity and Terrorism in the Islamic World by J. Mullard Burr and Robert Collins.  CUP issued a full apology to avoid a suit.  Lawyers in the US acting for Saudi-backed Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) have been on a long march through the UN to ban ‘defamation of religion’ in the name of anti-racism and, in 2008, in the name of the recently more fashionable 'religious discrimination'.3

            But Muslim opportunists are merely capitalising on the opportunism of the left whose residue, political correctness, is still with us.  On some issues we will find ourselves on the same side as the Islamists against imperialism and the state’ wrote the Jewish atheist Chris Harman, Editor of Socialist Worker in an essay for Marxism Online in 1994.  'Where the Islamists are in opposition, our rule should be, "with the Islamists sometimes, with the state never".'3

The ‘crying wolf’ about truth and freedom in which the left indulged for decades is what Polanyi described as ‘the inversion of morality’: ‘a fierce moral protest made in terms of a fantastic immorality’ which caused our present disorientation.   The solution he believed was ‘to re-establish the grounds of human knowledge as ‘personal knowledge’.

            And strangely, the secular Muslim writer Kenan Malik agrees.   ‘The uncertainties and insecurities of Western societies about the worth of basic liberal values . . . have made Islamists appear more potent than they are’.  He calls for a recovery of our cultural instincts.

            Those instincts are derived from the struggles of the Church.  In Lamin Sanneh’s words we have to recover ‘a spiritual system of explanation’ for a civilization that while being admired for what it produces and disseminates, is easily caricatured in its beliefs and underlying values.  Freedom is an act of faith. 

Notes

1. Cartoonists who lampooned the Nativity at the end of the 19th Century in the Secularist magazine were sentenced to a year’s hard labour.

2. Conducted for Channel 4 Dispatches  ‘Attitudes to Living in Britain – A Survey of Muslim Opinon’. GfK stands for ‘Growth from Knowledge’.

3.  Chris Harman, ‘the Prophet and the Proletariat,’ Marxism Online, 1994, http http://www.marxisme.dk/arkiv/harman/1994/prophet/ch10.htm.

References

Malik, Kenan  2009 From Fatwa to Jihad: The Rushdie Affairs and its Legacy  London : Atlantic

Modood, Tariq and T Berthoud et al 1997  Ethnic Minorities in Britain: Diversity and Disadvantage - Fourth National Survey of Ethnic Minorities  London : Policy Studies Institute

 

Comment: CRY FREEDOM

Ian Cowley

“Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose” sang Kris Kristofferson in Me and Bobby McGee. Freedom is a notoriously difficult concept to nail down. But when it is taken away from us, then we know. Perhaps freedom is best defined by its opposites: imprisonment, slavery, oppression, bondage.

In Britain we have the great privilege of living in what is broadly a free society. We are free to go where we choose, to say what we think, to meet with those with whom we want to meet. There are many societies on earth where these freedoms are severely curtailed.

It is very important that we do not take these freedoms for granted. Our constitutional democracy is a powerful bulwark against totalitarianism. But freedom in society is always under threat. The history of the twentieth century should make this abundantly clear to anyone with eyes to see.

In this country we are not persecuted for being Christian as many are in other parts of the world. Yet there are a growing number of arenas in our society where to speak openly as a Christian is to invite some form of ridicule or sanction. TIME magazine recently described Britain as “one of the most aggressively secular societies on the planet.” We do have a battle on our hands. It is not a battle that will be won by taking the road of least resistance.

 

Newbigin DVD

Thanks to Dan and Sue Beeby, the Network has recently acquired videotapes of three lectures presented by Lesslie Newbigin in February 1989. Titled Europe: A Mission Field, they were delivered at the Baptist Theological Seminary, Rueschlikon , Switzerland . These have been transferred on to two DVD's which can be purchased from the Network for £10 plus £2 postage within Europe ((£4 beyond Europe ). Proceeds from sales will be used to support the continuing online presence and further development of www.Newbigin.net.

            From Dan's personal files we have also been able to trace a further dozen texts written by Lesslie Newbigin. These had been recorded but not previously sighted by those of us creating the Newbigin.net online searchable database. They are now being scanned for uploading to the site.

            Among the texts found was a little essay Newbigin produced in 1982 for the Mission and other Faiths Committee of the United Reformed Church (of which he was a member). This 'very feeble essay' as Newbigin called it (ACCESS No. 725) is a reminder of the context in which Newbigin first began wrestling in a sustained way with Western culture. The proposal had been made that a booklet be produced on Marxism. Newbigin protested 'If we do a booklet on Marxism, then we must at the same time do one on liberal, free market capitalism; if we do not, we shall be looking at Marxism through our liberal-capitalist spectacles and not through Gospel spectacles'. He was then invited himself to draft the kind of thing he had in mind. 'When I tried to do so, I hardly knew how to start. After much struggle I produced a very feeble essay of a page and a half... but the problem would not go away.' His essay shows how, in the course of this struggle, he came across Paul Hazard's The European Mind, which, as he wrote in Unfinished Agenda, 'seemed to provide the perspective I was looking for'.

            Newbigin ended his essay with three points which are still relevant today:

1. The response of the Churches to the Enlightenment has been, by  and large, to avoid a direct challenge and to retreat into the private sector. The characteristic religious movements of the post-Enlightenment years - the various kinds of revivalism - have all accepted the Enlightenment concept of the autonomous individual and left the public sphere to the secular forces.

2. Probably the crucial area in which the encounter between the Christian faith and the post-Enlightenment culture must take place is in the classroom. The recent BCC document on 'Understanding Christian Nurture' leaves 'education' to be conducted on the principles of the Enlightenment, while advocating 'nurture' for Christian children. This is simply to prepare the Church for the ghetto.

3. An alert missiology today would surely be taking it as the first priority to develop an approach to our culture which is (in A. G. Hogg's phrase) both relevant and challenging - using its terms to call into question its axioms, cherishing its achievements and exposing its errors, offering an 'explanation which 'explains' why the Enlightenment 'explanation' doe snot 'explain'. I can't yet see how this is to be done; but it may at least help to indicate the need'.

 

A personal note from David Kettle

With reluctance I have decided to step down from editing the Network newsletter and its ACCESS Supplement. This is for reasons connected with my health. Two years ago I was given radiotherapy. I remain productive at present, but recent medical tests indicate the return of disease and raise pressing questions over my future. I therefore plan to make the next newsletter, in October 2010, the last I edit personally. Beyond then I hope to continue providing administrative support to the Gospel and Our Culture Network and to continue some networking.

            A key factor in my stepping down as editor at this stage is my desire to finish two theological books which have lain too long uncompleted. I believe that my first responsibility is to complete these, and I am laying aside as much else as possible in order to do so. A little more of this in the next newsletter.

 

Public truth and public utility

'According to rational-choice theory, state-subsidised European churches are overstuffed with bureaucrats and professionals who live off the establishment, whereas American churches are subjected to the rigours of the marketplace. Thus Europeans view their churches as public utilities rather than, as in America , rival companies.' Richard Neuhaus, 'Secularisations' (ACCESS No. 724). Now there's an interesting starting-point for reflection on the vision of  things 'public'...

 

Book Reviews

Tony Clark, Divine Revelation and Human Practice: Responsive and Imaginative Participation, Wipf & Stock, 2008, pp. 228, pb £42.

This is a fresh, and refreshing, look at the well-worn but vital topic of Karl Barth’s theology of revelation, which is brought into a helpful dialogue with Michael Polanyi’s epistemology.

            The early chapters set out Barth’s doctrine of revelation, and simultaneously emphasise both the ‘plumb down from above’ aspects and Barth’s clearly stated intention that this was not inherently in conflict with a full recognition of the human experience of God, which he could even term ‘religious experience’.  Clark presents Barth here as entirely consonant with Bonhoeffer: we must start with silence, and the initiative of God.  As such God presents himself to us, questions us, and reveals his own true reality.

            The difficulty arises as Barth is unable to offer any correlation between God and the human beings to whom he reveals himself.  Divine truth needs no human support, as the rainbow does not need the earth.  Yet rainbows do need the earth, the rain, the sun, and the atmosphere.  Clark sets out to show how Michael Polanyi illuminates the sub-structure of the interaction between God and the world.

            He draws helpfully upon the writings of Trevor Hart and Alan Torrance to explore the connections from a theological perspective, and then brings Polanyi’s thought into play.  In particular he shows how Polanyi transcended modernism’s insistent duality between objectivity and subjectivity, and restored the personal and questing exploration of the scientist to the heart of scientific method.  Furthermore, Polanyi did not see this as essentially an individual quest for knowledge, but the activity of a community of explorers.  Science is very far from a fact collecting exercise, but is a voyage into the unknown resulting from a faint contact with the unknown.

            As Clark develops the conversation between Barth and Polanyi he effectively grafts a Polanyian language into Barth’s thought, and helps Barth, as so reconstructed, to avoid the unnecessary hostages to fortune which he could not quite avoid giving, even in his later work.

            Polanyi’s own explicit treatment of theological ideas was very limited, which Clark usefully delineates, and traces to Polanyi’s reluctance to participate personally in a religious community.  It remains a bit of a puzzle why someone who saw the communal character of science so clearly failed to appreciate how this was even more necessary for religious knowledge.

            Yet Polanyi himself exemplified his own claim that in knowledge we always know more than we can tell, and Clark creatively sets out a sacramental structure of revelation as the most authentic way of transcending the subject-object dichotomy.  If all knowledge has the potential to be articulated in explicit and objective ways, what purpose can there be for bread, wine, and the water of baptism?  He has a useful, short section on the place of music in worship: if revelation can be articulated in prose, why bother singing at all?  This picks up all that Polanyi has to say about knowledge through indwelling and participation.

            This is a well written book which will interest students of Barth, and those interested in modern theology in general.  Its weakness, for me, was that it does not consider the potential relevance of Polanyi’s later work, with its stratified ontology.  In many ways it is an ontology which Barth’s doctrine of revelation overlooks, as much as a more nuanced epistemology.  But, appropriately, Clark ’s book may bear yet more, at present unspecified, fruit.  For Polanyi as for Barth, all knowledge is incomplete, terminating only upon the mystery of God and his creation. 

Peter Forster

(now also published by James Clarke & Co., 2010, £20)

 

Philip Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa and Asia, Lion, 2008, pp xi + 317, pb £12.99

Philip Jenkins wants to make sense of Christianity in a global context.  Over the last decade, books he has written include The Next Christendom (2002), The New Faces of Christianity: Believing the Bible in the Global South (2006), and God's Continent: Christianity, Islam and Europe 's Religious Crisis (2007). In light of the impact of globalising Islam in the same period this latest book is a timely sequel.  It importantly acknowledges historic Christian communities, including those that have lived long in close proximity to Islam, telling their remarkable stories in order to learn from their experience.

            The opening chapter gives an overview of the reach of the book, rooting it in observations about the Nestorian bishop Timothy who was patriarch when Baghdad became the intellectual centre of Islam.  Timothy's was a missionary church that extended from Syria to Yemen , India and China , whilst he, and other Syriac Christians, were the conduit by which Greek classics and the Indian numbering system where introduced to the Arab-Muslim context.  At the time these close interrelations seemed to reflect the strength, and not the demise, of the Church of the East, which went on to exert much influence for half a millennium more, before being all but obliterated at the time of the Mongol invasions.  Given this context the book explores the questions 'how does de-christianisation happen?' and 'why is it that some communities survive?' 

            Lamin Sanneh rightly describes the book a 'tour de force in historical retrieval and reconstruction'.  Unsurprisingly that means its strength is also its weakness.  It has an excellent chapter showing the close relationship between elements within Islam and seventh century Syriac Christianity.  However, confident statements in some places gloss over important debate, as in the way Ibn Taymiyyah, who is rightly described as 'the spiritual godfather of the Wahhabi movement' (p126), is implied to be a product of his time: one moderate Muslim scholar recently described Ibn Taymiyyah's teaching as the classic distillation of all Qur'anic scholarship that had gone before him, particularly as it relates to the Bible and Christians. If this is correct he warrants more than a passing, almost dismissive, glance, even in a book written for a general audience.

            The book is not simply about the interface with Islam. Though Jenkins acknowledges that a steady process of social isolation under Muslim rule contributed to the vulnerability of Christian communities in the fourteenth century, he considers sociological, theological and even climatological factors too.  Sadly the format of the book does not aid further investigation.  Absence of a bibliography, and endnotes situated at the back of the book, make it hard to check sources.  That aside, it is an outstanding introduction, which fills a major gap in the shared knowledge that should inform our contemporary reflection on the Gospel and culture, global and local.  Highly readable.  Highly recommendable.

Carol Walker

 

Michael Kirwan, Girard and Theology, T& T Clark, 2009, 165 pp., pb £16.99.

René Girard’s seminal theories about violence, religion and scapegoating have attracted much interest in recent decades. They deserve close consideration. If however you are unfamiliar with them, don’t start here. Begin with Michael Kirwan’s excellent introduction to mimetic theory, Discovering Girard (Cowley Publications, 2005).

            The bold claim is that Girardian theory may prove to be as important in unifying fields of literature, anthropology, and theology as Darwinian theory has proved in the natural sciences. In making this assertion, Girard has been well aware that for many scholars, the idea of a global theory of religion sounds impossible. On the other hand, the need to understand violence and religion is a pressing concern.

            Kirwan’s present volume provides a valuable survey of Girard’s ideas and their relevance to theology in today’s world. He asks whether Girard’s theory really is ‘science’. Then, in a fast moving survey, he demonstrates the relevance of Girard’s work to theologians in several different areas. He also outlines the valuable contributions of other authors to the refining and developing of the theory over the past 35 years. He quotes (twice) David Ford’s checklist in Self and Salvation (2006) of six criteria for an adequate soteriology, arguing first that ‘Girard’s theory makes sense of some of the key metaphors’ before relating this theory to models of the atonement. Kirwan is also careful to do justice to Girard’s critics, and his final chapter acknowledges ‘a “wait and see” dimension to the overall verdict on mimetic theory’.

            Kirwan’s epilogue begs a question. If, to quote the title of Girard’s first book on theology, Jesus reveals Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World (Matthew 13.34), why wasn’t the entire theory formulated centuries ago? The answer is that we find ourselves caught up in violence, and that the move to non-violence requires nothing less than conversion, operating on different levels and at different times. Kirwan had described Girard’s conversion, and he notes that even during the 2000 Colloquium on Violence and Religion the participants had had to come to terms with their own tendency to scapegoat.

            As we try to understand violence and religion, Michael Kirwan reminds theologians of the value of Girard’s work, and of the need for a theology which is part of the solution to violence rather than part the problem.

Tom Ambrose

 

Twentieth Century Pioneers of Mission to Western Culture

Francis Schaeffer

Bruce A. Little

Francis A. Schaeffer (1912-1984) spent most of his adult life with his wife Edith and their four children in Switzerland where they founded L’Abri Fellowship the story of which can be found in Edith Schaeffer’s wonderful book, The Tapestry. Over the years, hundreds of people came to L’Abri where many found Christ as Schaeffer listened carefully to their questions and helped them to see how historic Christianity answered those questions. Consequently, Schaeffer eventually earned the reputation of having a mission to the European intellectual. In 1960, Time magazine referred to Schaeffer’s ministry noting that “the European intellectual is the single object of the Schaeffers’ mission in the mountains.”1 However, they had been sent to war-torn Europe in 1948 by the Presbyterian mission board to work among the children, many who had been orphaned by the war. That often comes as a surprise to those not well acquainted with Schaeffer, because by the time he was well-known, it was not for children’s work, but work among young people and intellectuals.

            To understand Schaeffer’s approach to evangelism, one must give attention to the three works that reveal the foundation of his understanding of man, reality, and the Bible. Three books serve as the foundation for all his other books, forming a trilogy: “The God Who Is There, Escape from Reason, and He Is There and He Is Not Silent. All the other books fit into these as spokes of the wheel into the hub.”2 In 1982, the works of Francis Schaeffer were edited by Schaeffer and published in a five-volume set in which the trilogy is in the order in which they were written. This order reveals the development and foundation of his thinking apologetically and is essential to understanding Schaeffer and his apologetic method.

 

The Trilogy3

Schaeffer’s view of man shaped much of his apologetic approach (which for him was part and parcel of his evangelism). Historic Christianity, according to Schaeffer, was creation centred and central to creation was that God created man in his image. The first apologetic implication of creation was that man had intrinsic worth which meant he was to be treated with respect and love. This truth shaped Schaeffer’s life and ministry as he was motivated and directed by love and compassion for man as a person. Apologetics, he urged, must be “shaped on the basis of love for the person as a person.”4 As Bryan Follis notes, “we need to emphasize that the love being displayed by the Schaeffers was not just a tool being used to commend their apologetic. Indeed I would maintain that the apologetics of Francis Schaeffer flowed from his love for people.”5

            While Schaeffer did not minimize the historic fall recorded in Genesis, he argued that the fall “did not lead to machineness, but to fallen-manness.”6  There was a greatness to man even though he could also be very cruel. Schaeffer’s point:    

"Perhaps you do not like the word nobility, but whatever word you choose, there is something great about man. I want to add here that evangelicals have often made a serious mistake by equating the fact that man is lost and under God’s judgment with the idea that man is nothing—a zero. . . . There is something great about man, and we have lost perhaps our greatest opportunity of evangelism in our generation by not insisting that it is the Bible which explains why man is great."7

            This truth moved Schaeffer to take all men seriously and to answer the honest questions of fallen man. Furthermore, the Christian must take care to understand the person by looking carefully at his cultural artifacts. Schaeffer was brilliant at discerning underlying worldviews and presuppositions revealed in cultural artifacts.8

The second apologetic implication of creation is that man can understand the world in which he lives because created reality is stable and intelligible. The categories of the mind of man correspond to the structure of the world as God had created both. The result—there is common ground between the Christian and the non-Christian. This is not something man put upon the universe; it is simply the way it is. Man lives in a morally structured, rational universe and no matter how he might try to live against the way the universe is, Schaeffer was sure it would push back at him and create tension for his presuppositions.

            It is the Christian’s apologetic task, according to Schaeffer, to show man where the point of tension existed between his presuppositions and the way the world really is. Schaeffer’s approach was to “push him [man] towards the logic of his position in the area of his own real interests. . . . If it is art, then gently and yet firmly we push him from the point of tension to the end of his presuppositions.”9 Apologetically, he noted that “at the point of tension the person is not in a place of consistency in his system, and the roof is built as a protection against the blows of the real world, both internal and external. . . . The Christian, lovingly, must remove the shelter and allow the truth of the external world and of what man is, to beat upon him.”10 Of course this was not a game for Schaeffer and he urged the Christian always to give the answer as understood in light of historic Christianity and to do so in a loving and compassionate tone. He was convinced that when speaking to the non-Christian “the truth that we let in first is not a dogmatic statement of the truth of the Scriptures, but the truth of the external world and the truth of what man himself is.”11 For Schaeffer, the real point of contact with the modern (and post modern mind) was reality. Regardless what presuppositions a man claims as grounds for his worldview, Schaeffer shows how they can be tested for truthfulness when pressed against the reality in which every person must live.

            We may conclude that Schaeffer remains an important apologetic resource for Christians in the 21st century.

Notes

1.     Editorial, “Mission to Intellectuals”, Time (Jan 11,1960), 62.

2.     Francis A. Schaeffer, The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer: A Christian Worldview, vol. 1, The God Who Is There (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1982), x.

3.     The God Who Is There, Escape from Reason, and He Is There and He Is Not Silent.

4.     Ibid., 177.

5.     Bryan Follis, Truth with Love ( Westchester , IL : Crossway Books, 2006), 137.

6.     Schaffer, The God Who Is There, 67.

7.     Francis A. Schaeffer, The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer: A Christian Worldview, vol. 1, He Is There and He Is Not Silent (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1982), 278.

8.     This is most obvious in his film series (and book by the same title) How Should We Then Live?

9.     Schaeffer, He Is There and He Is Not Silent, 139.

10.  Ibid., 140.

11.  Francis A. Schaeffer, The God Who Is There, 140–141.

 

Contributors

Tom Ambrose is an Anglican Priest who lives in Cambridge

Ian Cowley is Vocations and Spirituality Co-ordinator in the Diocese of Salisbury

Peter Forster is Bishop of Chester

Bruce Little is Director of the L. Russ Bush Center For Faith and Culture, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, North Carolina

Jenny Taylor is Director of Lapido Media

Carol Walker worked in Pakistan and the Middle East for many years, and is currently pursuing doctoral research in the UK

 

Newsletter 59 (Autumn '10)

Knowing the Gospel, knowing our culture

David Kettle

C. S. Lewis said 'I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.'

            Such is our knowledge of God in Christ. As God opens our eyes, he opens them to ourselves and to all creation seen in his light. This involves much more than possessing certain information, however useful to us. It is about being awakened by God to a way if life in which we entrust ourselves, and the world as we know it, utterly to God in worship and service. It is a matter of knowing that which lies beyond knowledge, in faith, hope and love - and at the same time in radical enquiry, as by God's grace we seek with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, to live in his presence and to discern and do his will.

            What we mean by knowing God is more about our being than our having, and can be understood as a uniquely lively and costly matter of our personal acting. Of course in modern thinking, the 'act of knowing' is little understood, although Michael Polanyi's writings offer valuable insight into this. The act in which we know God sheds vital light upon knowing of all kinds: our knowing persons, knowing the beautiful, knowing the good, our theoretical knowledge and our practical know-how.

Modern thinking about knowledge

How relevant a matter is this to Christian life and witness in Western culture? It is very relevant indeed. Modern thinking understands poorly the nature of knowing, especially knowledge of God and other lively personal knowledge, which is actually they key to understanding all knowledge. Modern thinking tends to assume rather that all knowledge is to be understood by reference to potentially useful, objective knowledge - the kind of knowledge which it aspires to possess. It tends to see other 'knowledge' as merely a matter of subjective ideas about things within the world or subjective ways of seeing the world as such and ascribing value to it. Accordingly it assigns 'knowing God' to the realm of subjective commitment to inherently contested ideas, or to the realm of ways of seeing and ascribing value to the world.

            This false thinking is not merely of consequence for theory. It effectively accuses knowledge of God of being something less than the wonder it is, and so actively subverts attention to the claims of Christianity and deflects people from taking the Gospel seriously. Moreover, such false thinking is found in the Church itself; as Christians, however real our encounter with God in Christ, we too commonly understand what we believe by reference to modern cultural assumptions about knowledge; we are domesticated to our culture.

            Lesslie Newbigin was right, I believe, in discerning the cultural captivity of Western Christians, and describing this as domestication to modern assumptions about knowledge.

            Although there are in some Christian circles today signs that Newbigin's insight has been recognised, in many places it has not - including, often, in missional church circles, interfaith circles, and even, oddly, among those who pursue a Christian contribution to the public domain. The Gospel and Our Culture Network still needs to make its small contribution here. Lesslie Newbigin thought results might be seen after 150 years. 

In the deep context of God

The cultural captivity of Western Christianity is concealed from Western Christians themselves, although their brothers and sisters in Christ overseas see it. And unfortunately the very idea of 'cultural captivity' tends to be minimised among those for whom the mission task is above all about contextualising the Gospel.

            Now the contextualisation of the Gospel is vital; indeed as Newbigin said, the Gospel has never been disclosed other than in contextual form. However, this is not the same as proclaiming a Gospel which conforms to the presuppositions underlying our cultural and other contexts. Rather, the Gospel addresses us to the depths of those human contexts which comprise our cultural assumptions and personal attachments, calling us to yield all wholeheartedly to receive new and eternal life in which God will reign as host. The Gospel is both inculturated and transcendent.

            We may express this by describing the Gospel as the good news of the sovereign approach of God breaking upon us in self-disclosure as our ultimate context, revealing at once God and our provisional (secular) contexts for what they are. This is consistent with the biblical understanding of God as the one who hosts us as our creator and redeemer. It is the hospitality of God which defines what it means for us to know God, ourselves and the world. We need to translate the hospitality of God today into the notion of 'ultimate context', I believe, in order that the Gospel may successfully and vitally engage distorted modern habits of thinking about knowledge and its context.

Hospitality, godly and modern

Modern thinking has generated forms of public hospitality which are deeply ambiguous vis-a-vis the hospitality of God, and which misrepresent and marginalise the latter. This is often felt by Christians today working in the secular professions. When Christians of diverse professions meet to discuss the practical issues they face, they will often find these span their professions, being rooted in culture-wide assumptions which stand in tension with Christian faith.

Western culture: ten conversions

How may we make explicit the biblical and theological bearings which enable Christians to engage coherently with these issues? As I lay aside editing this newsletter for health reasons, I will focus on completing two books concerned with this question. In both books I explore what it means to know God, and what this means for our understanding of all human knowledge. In the first (almost completed), I do so fairly briefly and then propose ten conversions which the Gospel demands of habitual Western thinking. These conversions are interwoven; any one conversion opens out upon the whole vista of Christian understanding of the world, and sheds light upon the others. They are as follows:

1: Secular society and the sacred

Modern society envisions itself as ‘secular’ in contrast with  traditional religious societies which inhabit an 'enchanted' world. In secular society - as modern society conceives itself - 'nothing is sacred', whereas religious societies believe in an overarching sacred cosmos within which certain features of nature and culture have a special sacred status. The vision of a Christian society is understood in these terms. However, this view misrepresents both the sacred and the secular as they are understood properly in Christian faith. In reality, Christian faith sponsors a desacralisation of the world first begun in Hebrew religion. The truly sacred is found in God alone and in God's purposes, which are for the whole of creation and not just for certain distinctively 'sacred' elements within it. Christian faith precisely undergirds, guides and nourishes the secular realm and where secular society ignores this it generates all sorts of hidden and distorting sacred totems of its own.

2: The trajectory of Western culture and the kingdom of God : Individualism, totalitarianism and community under God

Modernity connotes a cultural trajectory which derives historically from, but deviates from, orientation towards the dawning kingdom of God . It at once imagines to define culture (a development in which the nation state changes 'from gamekeeper to gardener') and aspires to transcend it (seeking to advance by the autonomous exercise of universal reason). As tacit Christian horizons fade, the modern orientation liquefies into a residue of ideology, surrogate science, and consumer choices. The renewal of Christian horizons and kingdom trajectory speaks at once into the modern classroom and the postmodern playground.

3: Seeking truth, pursuing good: The modern betrayal of enquiry and the rediscovery of God

According to modern thinking, value can be separated from fact and is subjective and private relative to an individual or to a culture. This idea has subverted the exploration of reality at the level of our deepest and most lively personal engagement with the real. It has sponsored a widespread erosion of traditional canon, subverted the primacy of practitioners and their practical wisdom, exalted the secondary and derivative, and colluded in fostering a distracted, superficial, browsing culture. Christian faith sponsors the renewal of loving, demanding pursuit of the real.

4: Demonisation, polarisation and divine bearings

Modern assumptions underlie the tendency of polarisation  between liberals and fundamentalists in various settings (religious and otherwise) today. This polarisation is driven by secular ideology, but it is found within and threatens the Church. Liberals exalt questioning, understood as doubting; fundamentalists respond by exalting faithfulness, understood as allegiance. Each tacitly retains secular assumptions; each defines itself negatively over against the other, in mutual demonisation. Christian faith is called to start elsewhere, taking positive bearings from God's self-revelation. When this calling is followed, a task of discernment arises in the place of stereotyping and demonisation.

5: The needy consumer and the generosity of God

Modern consumerism fosters and exploits needy, narcissistic personalities. It displaces 'the real' beyond consumers, peddles 'identity' and 'life' through consumption, and induces bondage to self-displacing mirages and spectres. A Christian appraisal of this development may be found in reflection upon the classical Greek myth of Narcissus and Echo. The Church must shun consumerism in its own practice, modelling and nurturing instead the authentic nature of the 'real', 'personal identity' and 'life' as these are encountered within an eschatological and trinitarian Christian worldview.

6: The tragic sense of life and the Gospel of hope

The modern prevalence of tragic spirituality, sentiment and escapism, accompanied by an exalted and enraged victim sensibility, reflect a cultural loss of hope and the resurgence of a classical 'tragic sense of life'. The reasons for this can be identified. The crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus precisely engage cosmic despair with unqualified, cosmic hope. However Christian religion and spirituality can themselves fall captive to tragic sentiment and the exaltation of victims. The Church must be vigilant in resisting this and pointing to authentic hope in Christ.

7: Personal fulfilment, contemporary spirituality and the promise of eternal life

The modern habit is to oppose freedom to duty, autonomy to authority, and personal feelings to public doctrine. This turns God himself into the oppressor of ‘life’. This modern opposition is incorporated in contemporary spirituality and alternative therapies in a neo-pagan pursuit of ‘life’ which is at the same time postmodern it its opposition to modern rationality. Contending understandings of ‘life’ may be analysed in a Christian context.

8: The ideology of rights, political correctness, and God-given dignity

In modern thinking, human rights are exalted as securing the basis of human dignity. The ideology or rights has its origins in Christian tradition and in response to issues raised by modernity. In the modern secular liberal tradition, rights have become a kind of absolute property belonging to an individual or group. Rights ideology including its ‘politically correct’ form is a 'moralist' programme rooted in the vision of shaping the world in greater conformity to the human person or group, abstractly conceived and exalted. The promotion of choice as a right invites discussion. Rights and freedom of choice are to be understood, together with the distortions created by their contemporary exaltation, in the context of a Christian worldview.

 9: The ideology of capitalism and the 'common-weal' of God

The modern programme of economic rationalisation shapes human life to the dictates of the 'real' world abstractly conceived in economic terms and exalted. However, this economic 'world' is a construct of neoliberal ideology which falsely ascribes to it (and to capital in particular) features distinctive of human persons such as God-given worth, power of personal agency, and fecundity. Human persons are now displaced and reduced to human resources. A Christian response includes renewal of the place of service, of 'commons', fair profit, and location of economic considerations within the wider frame of God's intended blessings.

10: Public facts, private values and the worship of God

Despite the modern vision of a public domain, this is not, nor can it be, an empty space. It was framed historically as a domain imbued with norms and inviting participation. Today public space and public service are being eroded by false programmes of liberation: they are at once narrowed by ‘illiberal liberalism’ and dissipated by a ‘tolerance’ indifferent to truth. English political tolerance originates and derives its meaning from a different, Christian religious tolerance. Today the existence and content of public space no longer reflects Christian hospitality towards a secular or 'provisional' domain. Current changes in English secularity invite consideration, and their causes. Ultimately there is a choice to be made between Christ-sponsored freedom and secularist dogmas; the Church is called to host public space in the name of Christ.

 

Comment: THE BATTLE OVER FAITH

Ian Cowley

The visit to Britain of Pope Benedict XVI has been an extraordinary event, with implications that are going to take some time to absorb. The visit was widely expected, particularly in the media, to be difficult and poorly supported. Instead it was a triumph. The Pope skilfully focused attention on the battle over faith in a secular society, and at the same time won many admirers for his thoughtfulness and personal warmth

            For a short time, at the very least, it seems that Pope Benedict has been able to restore the credibility of religious faith in the public square. This was an argument that many thought had long since been lost. Faith seemed to have been firmly placed in the private world , not something to be talked about in public, or at least not without a measure of apology and a certain defensiveness

I was interested to hear Tony Blair speaking about his own faith in a radio interview during the Pope’s visit. Tony Blair said, “The Western intellectual view that as development happens religion falls away is a mistake. That is not what is happening.” Suddenly a range of public figures were telling us that Britain is not an aggressively secular society, and that faith, and perhaps even Christian faith, is a key part of our society. David Cameron said at Birmingham Airport , on the departure of the Pope,  “Faith is part of the fabric of our country. It always has been and it always will be.”

            This is good news. But the challenge for the church in Britain remains. The fact is that our credibility remains low, and in many areas of public life Christian faith is marginalized and under severe pressure. Pope Benedict XVI has delivered a powerful call on Britain to reclaim its Christian roots and to re-engage with Christian values.  He has given all Christians in this country a remarkable opportunity to make a new start in boldly and publicly living out the values of Christ in our own age.

   

Pope Benedict's visit to Britain

Stephen May

Pope Benedict XVI’s official visit to the UK in September 2010 took place amidst a storm of controversy due to the revelations over priestly misconduct. A television reporter said, ‘Millions adore him, millions think he is the face of evil’. There were several hostile TV documentaries immediately before his arrival. Cardinal Kasper said that Heathrow airport was like the Third World . Clearly this was going to be a disaster.

            Everything changed from the moment he arrived. The Pope spoke directly, acknowledging in unprecedented form the sins of the Church whilst simultaneously challenging secular culture. He argued that ‘the exclusion of God, religion and virtue from public life leads ultimately to a truncated vision of man and of society and thus to a “reductive vision of the person and his destiny” (Caritas in Veritate, 29).’ The critics were put on the back foot. They defended themselves shrilly against his accusation that aggressive atheism had damaged public debate in this country.  To me, this dual position – repentance and proclamation - speaks to the fact that we never witness from the higher ground ourselves (however much we would like to), but only from a centre in God, in what is given to us, never from our own strength or virtue. And, unlike many of us, he did not let such embarrassment stop his speaking.

            The Pope’s remarks at Holyrood Palace about Nazism were almost cunning in the way they deflated accusations about the ‘Nazi Pope’. First he showed himself a victim of the Nazis by being forced into the Hitler Youth as a boy, and then pointed out that it was an atheist regime that had done this. e haHHe congratulated Britain on standing, ‘against a Nazi tyranny that wished to eradicate God from society and denied our common humanity to many, especially the Jews, who were thought unfit to live.’ (Homosexuals, who were loud in protesting against his visit, were, of course, also in this category.)

            Rather than ‘God’s rottweiler’, Benedict XVI came across as a ‘twinkly grandad’ (Bryan Appleyard, Sunday Times, 19/9/09, p.2). He attracted crowds, particularly of the young, larger than those anticipated by a press slavering in advance for blood.

            Andrew Brown, writing in the Church Times (24/9/10. p.33), suggested the media change was largely a matter of numbers: those celebrating his visit openly were many more than those protesting – and the media took their cue from this. ‘When the television showed about 125,000 people in Edinburgh lined up to greet him, and at most 100 protestors, all of a sudden the story was a positive one.... This kind of a figure makes an impression on editors. They are more eloquent than any PR initiatives.’

            ‘Please lead us to the Lord,’ Archbishop Vincent Nichols said to him before Mass. Benedict XVI was as unapologetically evangelical as any Christian leader I have heard. In Westminster Abbey he expounded the Nicene Creed and the Gospel with simplicity and directness. There was something profoundly intimate in the way the head of the Roman Catholic Church interacted with people as he gave out communion – a level of humanity different from that of political leaders.

            The visit was eloquent with symbolism. The sight of this 83-year old rather frail looking man in Westminster Hall, the site of Thomas More’s condemnation, spoke for itself. He was escorted into Westminster Abbey by Anglican clerics and prayed with the Archbishop of Canterbury, all of whose orders he does not recognise. It made one awestruck. The Pope brought with him a sense of history, one that has been strikingly lacking in out a-historical age; right from the beginning he spoke of the way this country depended for its most prized institutions and traditions and even character (values of honesty, respect and fair-mindedness) on its Christian heritage and tradition.

            Of course not all could grasp this, by any means. Appleyard observed: ‘his speech on Friday to the grandees at Westminster Hall was an intellectually dense but urgent demand for a union of faith and reason. It was tailored for Britain , the most secular country he is ever likely to visit. This unity lies at the heart of his thinking.... It flew over the heads of the great and good.’ So dominant is the current theological illiteracy that a BBC news reporter showed incomprehension of the notion that Christianity could be a matter of ‘objective truth’. Politicians of whatever colour seemed bewildered by the Pope’s criticisms of our political and social consensus, the church-going (David Cameron) as much as the atheist.

            However, most commentators agreed that the Pope had issued challenges, even if they were unsure what those challenges were exactly.

 

GM issues and Biblical ethics

Those who  have appreciated John Hodges' application of Biblical ethics to issues in contemporary food production will be interested to read his reflections on emerging problems in milk and meat from livestock. His paper Going beyond the limits: Genetic Modification and Dissolution of Ancient Boundaries', published in the May issue of the Elsevier Journal of Livestock Science, is available on request as a pdf attachment from the Network (for email address see back page of newsletter).

 

Twentieth Century Pioneers of Mission to Western Culture

Harold W. Turner

Murray Rae

Born in New Zealand in 1911, Harold Turner was an indefatigable participant in the task of proclaiming the gospel, and a profound thinker about the Christian missionary imperative. Early while serving as a Presbyterian minister it became clear that Turner had a broad vision of what Christian ministry and mission entailed. With committees of lay people he established the first campus based university bookshop in New Zealand and two university student Halls of Residence. Student residences, he believed, ‘should express life in a community with a shared purpose and with shared values. Their purpose should be formative and in the fullest sense, educational’.1  The ways in which persons are formed in community and the foundations upon which purposes and values for a life together are built became a central focus of Turner’s life-long work.

            This interest gained momentum when, during the 1940’s, Turner came under the influence of the British think-tank, ‘The Moot’. The concern of ‘The Moot’ to articulate a Christian account of social order and to establish the place of Christian ideals in British society inspired Turner to become involved in New Zealand’s National Council of Churches’ ‘Campaign for Christian Order’. The theological mandate for Turner’s own involvement in this came through Calvin’s emphasis on the sovereignty of God and the Lordship of Christ over all spheres of human life. The work of Emil Brunner and John Baillie provided further impetus for Turner’s growing conviction that the mission of the church had to do not only with the transformation of hearts and minds, but demanded also a serious theological engagement with the roots of culture and the structures and values of society at large - themes to which he would return later in his life.

            In the intervening decades, however, Turner took a course wholly unplanned on his part and which he would attribute to divine providence. He set out from New Zealand to the UK in quest of a career in theological teaching, but after only a year in the UK he found himself appointed to a position at a theological college in Sierra Leone . There his curiosity was sparked by new religious movements, and he developed a comprehensive scholarly apparatus to classify and analyse these movements. His pioneering work effectively established a new field and accompanying methodology within the discipline of religious studies. Turner saw this work as ‘opening up a new kind of mission, that of a bridge between the older churches and strange new forms that eluded their understanding’.2 The Laughter of Providence, published in 2001,3 records Turner’s advocacy on behalf of several of these movements that were subjected to suspicion, persecution and injustice. He once remarked that tolerance of such movements, wayward though they may be in orthodox Christian terms, was an imperative resulting from God’s compassionate tolerance of us, and from Christ’s advocacy on our behalf before the throne of grace.

            After eleven years in Africa, Turner returned to the UK where he established the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Leicester and later the Centre for New Religious Movements at the Selly Oak Colleges in Birmingham . There he encountered another missionary returned from the two-thirds world to find that the Western world had its own urgent need of renewed missionary engagement. Lesslie Newbigin and Harold Turner discovered their mutual interest in the way the gospel relates to contemporary Western culture. Their common theme was that the basic presuppositions and epistemological commitments dominant in modern Western culture were profoundly antithetical to the Christian gospel. Diagnosis of this problem and the recovery of a proper confidence in the truth of Christ were recognised as urgent mission tasks for our time. Newbigin’s contribution to that task is well-known and widely influential. Turner took the message back to his native New Zealand and established there a Gospel and Cultures Trust with its newsletter New Slant to which he contributed numerous articles, and then the DeepSight Trust.

            Turner had long seen John Baillie's formula of 'mediated immediacy' as the key to understanding the way revelation is related to creation. This contrasts with a 'sacral' understanding of the world order, as he explored in his book From Temple to Meeting-House 4 and in his later book The Roots of Science 5 showing how Christian de-sacralisation opened the way for the empirical sciences. Another key theme in his writings is a relational understanding of reality rooted in the triune God, which he contrasted with the atomism of modern individualism on the one hand and the oceanic absorption envisaged in some Eastern religion. He found this relationality, however, also in the primal religions he studied, and believed that this helped to prepare them to embrace the Gospel. His final work, Frames of Mind6, challenges the ruling presuppositions of modern culture with this account of how reality is constituted.

            There can be no doubt that part of the mission task is to do the thinking that enables us to recognise the full scope of the gospel and the all-encompassing logic of God’s good ordering of the world. Thus can the gospel be proclaimed as public truth for all places and times. Harold Turner helped us to do such thinking and so contributed to the mission of God’s church.

Notes

1  A. F. Walls, ‘Building to Last: Harold Turner and the Study of Religion’, in Exploring New Religious Movements: Essays in Honour of Harold W. Turner, Elkhart , Indiana : Mission Focus, 1990, p2

2.  Harold W. Turner, ‘My Pilgrimage in Mission ’ in International Bulletin of Missionary Research (April 1989) 71-4, 72.

3.  Harold W. Turner, The Laughter of Providence ( Auckland : The DeepSight Trust, 2001).

4.  Harold W. Turner, From Temple to Meeting-House (The Hague: Mouton Publishers, 1979)

5.  Harold W. Turner, The Roots of Science ( Auckland : The DeepSight Trust, 2001)

6. Harold W. Turner, Frames of Mind ( Auckland : The DeepSight Trust, 2001).

 

Book reviews

Jonathan Ingleby, Beyond Empire: Postcolonialism and Mission in a Global Context, AuthorHouse, 2010. 279pp. pb. £11.99

Postcolonialism, argues Ingleby, provides 21st century Christians with a lens through which they may perceive God’s love in action in the world and discern where they may join in God’s mission.  Grasping the theory and concepts of postcolonialism and its way of reading history, he contends, allows an understanding of Empire, or the ‘Domination System,’ that critiques past and present injustices and develops approaches that permit God’s Kingdom to flourish. Ingleby’s introduction to postcolonialism is persuasive and engaging. It is accompanied by an apocalyptic theology that upturns the world’s values and indicates a way of revisioning God’s world and being empowered to work within it. It is illustrated by a magpie collection of references (urban depravation, Israel-Palestine, the Boer war, environmental concerns, youth and so on) and inspiration from films, fiction, music and personal experience. Those familiar with David Smith’s book Mission After Christendom ( London , 2003) will see a progression in the challenge to think differently about mission, developing an ethic and a political philosophy which engages with the contemporary context.

            The book is intended to introduce general readers to a new approach to mission, yet it is no mission handbook. Indeed, it’s rather a messy book. Although it has a clear shape, its fabric is stuffed to bursting with ideas, suggestions, and literary allusions. Ingleby picks up a wide range of different themes and pulls together a patchwork of suggestions. Many of his points are closely argued, but it is not always clear how some threads interweave. I was curious, for example, about how he might square his concern of rootlessness with his recognition of the contemporary influence of global migration: What does rootedness mean in a world of increased mobility? I would have liked to read more of his thoughts about the different emphases in, and diverse interpretations of, Pauline as well as Johannine theologies of Empire: particular interpretations of Paul have contributed to the Christian responses he criticises. Readers may find it a rollercoaster, exhilarating or nauseating or both. However, I suspect that this is what Ingleby intends – to throw his readers about a bit, turn their assumptions upside down, provide new perspectives and hope they continue with the ride.

            Beyond Empire engages with the contemporary world. It is global in reach but often local in attention, showing UK Christians (who Ingleby suspects of largely ignoring global injustices) how they might begin to change their mission priorities. Ingleby’s style is personal and passionate. He is critical but not carping, concerned about the world but not grumpy about change. Indeed he chides those who would retreat behind old certainties. Ultimately, this is a hopeful book, grappling with challenges and perceiving opportunities. Hold on tight – it’s well worth the read.

Emma Wild-Wood

 

Nicholas J. Wood, Faiths and Faithfulness: Pluralism, Dialogue and Mission in the Work of Kenneth Cragg and Lesslie Newbigin , Paternoster, 2009, 219pp,£24.99

Critical reviews suffer from the limitation of space for they often read as dismissive rather than as critically engaged. While I certainly do not intend to be dismissive, this work has some flaws.

            First, though it is published in 2009, this is, at best, a lightly revised version of Wood’s 1996 dissertation. It is clearly a well-researched work, but this 13-year period between completion and publication has not been kind. Most of the secondary material was published in the 70s and 80s. The argument reads as dated.

            Second, the overarching thesis is not sufficiently clear. The work is divided into four parts: an historical overview, beginning in the twentieth century, of the interfaith question; a section on Cragg; a section on Newbigin; a concluding constructive section. The problem is that the work does not place Cragg and Newbigin in conversation, so much as review them independently with a preference toward Cragg. Neither do Wood’s findings on these thinkers inform his own constructive conclusion. Instead, he turns to a biblical sketch of “fulfillment” and an overview of “dialogue.” If one deleted Cragg and Newbigin from the work, the conclusion would not differ.

            Third, though Wood employs a number of theological categories this occurs without robust definition and systematic development. This enables him to eclectically introduce different voices without establishing any rationale for their inclusion at that stage of the argument. For example, Wood’s evaluation of Newbigin considers him “close to” the idea of “revelation as history” (p.161). This underdeveloped connection alone is sufficient for Wood to draw on Pannenberg without establishing any context for Pannenberg’s position, or any potential differences between himself and Newbigin. Pannenberg becomes the focus of the defence, while Newbigin’s own position receives no significant formulation or analysis.

            These issues effect Wood’s own theological formulation. If one permits that God acts beyond the walls of the church, then, so his argument runs, a Logos Christology and an account of the Spirit that “connects the Christ event with the recognition of God’s universal self-revelation in so many channels of human life” (p.168) must follow. There is, however, no developed foundation for this assertion. Wood, drawing on J. A. T. Robinson, prefers to think of Jesus as ontologically human and functionally divine (p.173). He also wants to give the resurrection priority as this gives rise to the incarnation (p.175). The adoptionism to which such a position gives rise (though Wood does not employ this term) is considered a proper consequence of beginning with a Christology “from below.” Pannenberg re-emerges but without reference to how Wood’s appropriation of “from below” may interact with the prior treatment of revelation and history.

            Wood, I suggest, would have been better served to begin with his own Christological thesis and subject this to the critical questioning of Cragg and Newbigin.

John Flett

 

Daryl Balia, Make Corruption History, SPCK, 2009, 192pp, £18.99

After half a century and more than a trillion dollars spent on international development, nearly half the world’s population live on less than US$2 per day. One of the reasons for this is the amount of aid that feeds corruption. Instead of helping to raise the poor in low-income countries, aid money too often ends up lining the pockets the rich in those countries.

The consequences, in terms of economic development, are dire. For commercial investment relies on the strength of institutions such as private property, the rule of law and a limited state. Without them, entrepreneurs lack the assurance they need that their property rights will be upheld, the honouring of contracts can be enforced and that their freedom to operate will not be unduly hampered through poor or excessive regulation that is open to bribery. Despite all this, churches and development organizations have been deeply reluctant to admit to the problem of corruption, still less to fight it.

            Against this background, Daryl Balia is to be congratulated on this book. While he displays a deep understanding of the causes and consequences of corruption, his focus is on how to tackle it. Recognizing the strategic importance of the churches in this, he grounds his case in scripture and theology. Christian faith, he argues, has serious practical implications for the struggle against corruption and if the church was to engage in this struggle it would find an effective antidote to the secularist insistence that religion must be barred from public affairs.

            For Balia, the explosion of electronic communications, and the work of agencies like Transparency International, mean that the inertia and complacency surrounding this issue within western churches is without excuse. The issue is now less about accurate information than it is about moral leadership. And a key test of this moral leadership is whether funding to tackle corruption is made a key component of the churches’ engagement with the problem of poverty.

            Balanced and cool headed, Balia abides by the best conventions of scholarly prose. But only the most hardened reader can escape a sense of righteous indignation when he writes about the poor and innocent suffering injustice because judges are bribed or government officials falsify the truth because of cultural obligations to their family and friends. His book is a testimony to the fact that the vision of making poverty history has credibility only when combined with a vision of making corruption history.

Peter Heslam

 United in worship?

David Kettle

Among the books which have deserved review and not received it during the past few years while I have edited this newsletter, there are three on worship. Fascinatingly, they all come from traditions which have not generally given worship as central a place in the Christian life as have mainstream Roman Catholic, Anglican and Eastern Orthodox churches. The first is from the Evangelical, the second from the Baptist, and the third from the Reformed tradition (interestingly, Newbigin's work has received close attention from scholars influenced by each of these traditions). Could it be that the theme of worship - of 'doxology', to use the term profiled by Geoffrey Wainwright's book - could become the fertile context of ecumenical Christian exploration in the decades ahead?

            The first book, which has been published for four years now, is  Simon Chan, Liturgical Theology: The Church as Worshipping Community (IVP, 2006). The insight that 'bad worship produces bad theology, and bad theology produces an unhealthy church' concerns most obviously churches using contemporary worship songs and constructing culturally 'user-friendly' services. Churches exploring new forms of worship will value the help towards responsible discernment offered by this book. 

            The second book is by Elizabeth Newman, who has written and reviewed for this newsletter in recent years. Her Untamed Hospitality: Welcoming God and Other Strangers (Brazos Press, 2007) is rooted in reflection on the 'strange hospitality' of God offered in worship. In this context she examines the distorted hospitality offered by the contemporary projects of science and economics, the culture of choice, and politics. She also notes that the hospitality of worship itself can distort into mere niceness and sentiment, mere consumer satisfaction of needs, or mere inclusivity. The vocation of offering God's own hospitality - both public and ecclesial - requires vigilance.

            More recent is James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview and Cultural Formation (Baker, 2009). This is the first, key volume in a planned trilogy which seeks to offer a vision of authentic, integral Christian learning in its relation to worship. The author points behind 'worldviews' to the formation of hearts and their desires and to the indwelling of a 'social imaginary' (Charles Taylor's expression) which is embedded in the practice of Christian worship. In these terms the author compares Christian and secular 'liturgies'. His shift in focus from 'worldview' to a tacit 'social imaginary' is resonant with the insights of Michael Polanyi, although - unlike Elizabeth Newman - he does not draw from Polanyi's work. It would be worthwhile, I think, to compare Smith's understanding of worship with that briefly expressed by Polanyi and also embodied in, say, the music of John Tavener or Arvo Pärt.

DK

Short notices

There are several other book reviews which I had hoped to secure for the newsletter but without success, and these books which deserve at least to be mentioned. They are:

Russell Heddendorf, From Faith to Fun: The Secularisation of Humour (Lutterworth, 2009) tackles Gospel and culture from an unusual angle. The author propounds the thesis that 'subversive humour' dissolves traditional values and has become itself a substitute for faith in a 'culture of fun'. Is this an aspect of the 'acids of modernity' mediated by the primacy of doubt? If so, I think it could be argued that compulsively subversive humour is as much a distortion of the playful/serious intent of humour as the compulsion of doubt is a distortion of genuine, searching enquiry.

Also noteworthy are Jenny Taylor, A Wild Constraint: The case for Chastity (Continuum, 2008) Michael Nazir-Ali, The Unique and Universal Christ (Paternoster, 2008); and Mary Healy & Robin Parry (eds), The Bible and Epistemology: Biblical Soundings on the Knowledge of God (Paternoster, 2007).

 

Contributors

Ian Cowley is Vocations and Spirituality Co-ordinator in the Diocese of Salisbury

John Flett has lectured in theology in South Korea and is presently writing a post-doctoral Habilitation thesis in Wuppertal , Germany

Peter Heslam is Director of Transforming Business, Cambridge University

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

Murray Rae is Associate Professor of Theology, University of Otago , New Zealand

Emma Wild-Wood is Director of the Henry Martyn Centre for the Study of Mission and World Christianity, Cambridge