A theological Christmassy poem


Moved by that special time of year that it is, as well as a mind still steeped in Oriel theology more than year after my tragic departure, I’ve written a little nativity-related poem that I thought you might want to see:

The High Priest


Who can take up the noble tyrant’s vow,

The anointed fire and the vengeful rod,

When God-forged crown slips from an infant’s brow,

For how could Jesse root sprout from foul sod?

Am I told to bow to a suckling child?

Where is the foretold king in glory shod,

Who’d conquer Babel with a fury wild,

And shake the nations with each step he trod?

When thunder cracked and heaven’s trumpets called,

To herald God’s truth, and our hope, unveiled,

Hollow noise and dust kept our minds enthralled:

The great Isaiah’s incantations failed.

The relics of devotion are blown and lost,

As I stumble out over blackened frost.


I suppose the theological point I’m making with this is basically just ‘the kind of Messiah that Jesus turned out to be was probably quite surprising’.

Broaching Impossible Thinkers

Incomprehensible therapy, courtesy of Existential comics

It’s that time of year again—students are anticipating the start of the school year, whilst we’ve already started in America. And it’s almost guaranteed that the start of a new year will bring us into contact with new thinkers, new writers.

Some of these thinkers will be relatively easy for us to get to grips with. Their arguments will fit quite neatly with our preconceptions of how such things should work, their style will be amenable and familiar to us, and we won’t have much difficulty discerning why they are writing what they write. They might be more technical, more dense than most of things we read for pleasure—but jargon can be learnt, density worked through.

Some of the names we come across, however, will seem impossible. To pick one concrete example, and one likely to be encountered by Oriel Theology students, Karl Barth can seem incomprehensible at best, deliberately obtuse at worst. His magnum opus, the Church Dogmatics, takes years (possibly decades) to read in its entirety. It can seem laden with irreconcilable contradictions. His habit of making the same point in five, ten, twenty different ways, repeating more or less the same sentence with only minor alterations (to say nothing of the fact that these sentences can sometimes consume half a page), can seem in ore hurried moments like a vindictive attempt to waste students’ time. And depending which part of the Dogmatics you happen to be reading, he can seem like a deeply, deeply unpleasant man—one who feels confident castigating human beings for the slightest of infractions who wields Scripture as a weapon against any notion of human dignity. At least, this is how he seemed to me when I had to read him for the God, Christ and Salvation paper.

Other thinkers can seem impossible for different reasons. Wittgenstein (who might not be encountered directly in an analytic theology department, but will always be lurking in the background) seems genuinely ignorant of the possibility that he might have some responsibility for making his work comprehensible. Derrida (who is highly unlikely to be encountered in an analytic theology department) seems to have considered this possibility, and to have quite consciously done the precise opposite. To say Aquinas’ style is jarring to read would be an extreme understatement, especially if we don’t have at least a passing familiarity with Aristotle. Augustine are Calvin, meanwhile, can seem in many ways easy to read—but that accessibility is complicated by the sheer volume of their work, the intricacy of their reasoning, and the extremity of their conclusions. (It’s worth noting that all the thinkers I’ve spoken of here are western males—this has more to do with my own narrowness than anything else).

How, then, are we to broach these thinkers? Because it’s often important that we do. It’s important in terms of grades; I for one got a 58 in that God, Christ and Salvation paper, in large part because I didn’t think it worth the time to try and figure out what Barth was actually trying to say and why. And it’s important in terms of overall understanding: Derrida might be anathema in analytic schools, whilst Wittgenstein has largely fallen out of fashion, but the core of what they are trying to say, however obliquely, is of extreme relevance to what many analytic philosophers are trying to say.

I’m not sure if there’s a single answer to this question—different things will work for different people. But I can say one thing that has made reading all the figures above considerably easier for me: reading their biographies.

There are several reasons for this. First, it’s easy to suppose that biography is inessential to argument; in terms of raw logic, at least, an argument is valid or invalid irrespective of history, and a philosophical truth is both the same truth and will remain true irrespective of the life of the one who expressed it. Whether or not these things are the case, however (and to claim that they are is itself a philosophical claim), it is easier to understand what a difficult thinker is trying to say if they are read against the context of their life. The apparent incongruity between Barth’s severity and his generosity, between his hostility against every form of natural theology and his awareness that every theology is at root a natural theology, dissolves when it is set in the context of National Socialism. Wittgenstein’s incomprehensibility becomes more comprehensible in the light of the awe he felt before beauty—when it is set in the context of his feeling utterly inadequate to say what he felt it most important to appreciate.

Second, biographies help to historicise a thinkers’ work. It’s easy to read a philosopher or a theologian as if they had entered the world as the finished article, as if their work at any given moment represented an essential unity rather than a historical progression. It’s easy to read the Calvin of the first Institutes as essentially the same as the Calvin of the third; the Wittgenstein of Philosophical Investigations as the Wittgenstein of On Certainty; the Augustine of the Confessions as more or less the same as the Augustine who wrote against Julian so many years later. But while there is an identity over time, as there is in all of us, the Barth who wrote Volume 4 of the Church Dogmatics is more different to the Barth who first wrote volume 1 than the first year student is to the finalist. Knowing how and why this is the case is an essential part of delving into impossibly large corpuses of writing. It is essential for understanding both the underlying unity of and the differences between works produced at different stages of a single life, making clear the tensions which are often essential for understanding the apparent contradictions within a particular text.

Third and finally, it is because a good biographies can be a joy to read. Ray Monk’s biography of Wittgenstein, The Duty of Genius, and Peter Brown’s Augustine are both genuine tour de forces of their genre. Karl Barth: His Life and Letters, collected and written by Eberhard Busch and Calvin by Bernard Cottret, whilst less immediately accessible, serve not just as vivid portraits of their subjects, but also as inspired accounts of pivotal moments in history. I’ve just started reading Derrida: A Biography by Benoît Peeters, and it thus far promises to succeed in the seemingly impossible task of making Derrida (the man, as much as the philosopher) effortlessly readable. And this is no small thing—it is easy to forget what it feels like to read for joy when caught in the middle of either an undergraduate or a graduate degree programme. It’s easy to sacrifice such reading at the altar of the reading list. To forgo reading for pleasure, however, can make it harder to read for work; it can mean that the only reading we do is the reading which feels like effort, and so drains us. And if this reading for pleasure eventually makes it easier to read for duty, by making the work of these thinkers much easier to tackle, then so much the better.

To summarise, then; when we encounter thinkers whom we simply cannot seem to get to grips with, or thinkers who work is so extensive that we can never be sure quite where to begin, there are worse places to turn to than their biographies, if they indeed have one. These biographies make it easier to understand the thinker whose expression we find so difficult, and so easier to understand their expression. They help to historicise this expression, and so make sense of the underlying threads of development which constitute both the unity and difference within a given corpus. And they are often genuine pleasures to read, giving life to the soul rather than draining it.

This post is also on Ed’s personal blog, edseyeview.wordpress.com

Why Christian Orthodoxy?

image[This post is written from an explicitly Christian perspective, and from a particular Christian position at that. Its purpose is to explore what the study of orthodoxy might entail for the Christian believer. The point of studying theology from a neutral perspective has been brilliantly written on by Tara Isabella Burton here, and its account is far more generally valid!]

I can’t begin to say how wonderful it’s been to be back in Oxford. I’ll be heading back to America in August, but after four or so (more or less) continuous years across the pond, it’s nice to have six weeks to putter around this wonderful town.

One of the main advantages of being in Oxford is the ability to attend things like the end of a recent conference at Pusey House, where those present were blessed to see a number of excellent talks centring around the doctrine of the Trinity. Similarly, it’s lovely to be able to actually spend some time with some of the other authors on this blog.

With that said, there is an oddness, and a discomfort. Part of it is no doubt reverse culture-shock (a culture-shock which has been exacerbated by the news coming out of America these last few days), but there is still something else lying beneath. There was a moment during the day at Pusey which has particularly lingered with me—I think because of this ‘something else.’ The comment was made at some point that it’s almost impossible to be orthodox without having studied the Fathers (or something broadly to that effect)—a statement which was met with general assent. And why not? It probably is impossible to appreciate the depth of Christian doctrine without an awareness of its origins. All the same, I haven’t been able to shake a nagging discomfort provoked by the statement, or at least the general context of its utterance.

Part of this discomfort is probably down to the fact that I’m one of the only people to have studied under Bill who didn’t do patristics—and I’m only too aware of how significant this gap in my knowledge is. But as my thoughts have circled around this statement over the last few days, the same question has been popping up: ‘so what? Why would it matter if one were orthodox in that case?’ At the risk of self-indulgence (and not a little self-righteousness), I’d like to write a few paragraphs on the ‘why’ behind this question, and the implications its answers might have for the practical study of Christian doctrine. They have nothing much to do with the question of whether knowledge of patristics is essential to orthodoxy; only with the thoughts which followed from the nagging discomfort which this remark provoked.

First off, it is worth saying that neither this question nor this post are motivated by the belief that orthodoxy is unimportant. The core of Christian orthodoxy—which here refers principally (though not exhaustively) to the Nicene Creed and the later elucidation of Trinitarian theology, the definition of Chalcedon, the rejection of Pelagianism, and the fact that each of these rests on the authority of Scripture—is of essential importance to the vitality of Christian faith (of course, I’m also quite confident that this orthodoxy can be understood in accordance with the idea that the (human) language in which it is codified is inherently ambiguous, such that the proclamation and assent to words can never in itself definitively constitute the fullness of orthodoxy. The last I checked, however, such a belief has never been condemned as heresy, unless we tenuously include the modern Roman declaration against modernity!).

Nor is this question asked on the assumption that abstract theologizing, or investigation into the historical development of Christian doctrine, is either irrelevant or useless. Again, both of these practices are (and have always been) of essential importance to the life of the Church, and neither should be denigrated in the name of other practical vocations.

It has instead been nagging at me precisely because I believe orthodoxy to be important; precisely because I believe this study to be essential to the vitality of the Church. And there is something in the air which has led me to wonder whether the reasons for this importance are manifested here, in the atmosphere of academic theology.

To repeat the question, then—why does orthodoxy matter? I believe the reflections above contain the beginnings of an answer: it matters because it is key to the vitality of the Church. The next question is thus ‘why the Church, then?’ To gloss over a far wider debate, this is a question to which we have been given an answer: the reason of the Church is the fact that Jesus Christ is Lord. And so the answer to the question ‘why orthodoxy?’ is the same—orthodoxy matters because Jesus Christ is Lord.

Developing this a little: orthodoxy is important because it provides us with a means of talking about this Lordship of Jesus Christ, grounded in the mysteries of revelation borne witness to in Scripture. It clarifies and sharpens our sense of what is actually happening in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ—and through this (for most Christians, at least), it sharpens our sense of what is happening in the narrative of creation and fall, the words of the prophets, the Law, the history of Israel, the development of the Church, and so on. We are thus brought into a deeper sense of who God is, who we are, and what God’s will is for us today.

The key words in this, however, are ‘God’ and ‘Jesus Christ.’ These are the grounds of the importance of orthodoxy. And this means the focal point of orthodoxy is not doctrinal rigour or precision for their own sake, but rigour and precision for the sake of this same Jesus Christ (and Him crucified). The fact that the ‘why’ of orthodoxy is the Lordship of Christ therefore means that the content of that orthodoxy is necessarily intertwined with the life which Jesus, in this Lordship, calls us to pursue.

This in turn means that our focus in the study of orthodoxy must ultimately be the same as the focus of Jesus’ ministry, the focus of the God of Scripture—in the words of Isaiah 58:6-7, that our study must be explicitly, even if not directly, geared towards loosing the bonds of injustice, letting the oppressed go free, breaking every yoke, sharing bread with the hungry, bringing the homeless poor into our houses, covering the naked, and opening ourselves to our own neighbours. Or, in the words of Luke 4:18-19, this study must ultimately echo the proclamation of good news to the poor, of release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind; it must enable us to join the work of letting the oppressed go free and living out the reality of the year of the Lord’s favor.  In the words of today, it must proclaim against the killings of Alton Sterling and Philandro Castile, as well as the police officers who have been killed in Dallas today, to mourn these deaths as Jesus wept, and to try and articulate a way forward in the grace of God.

This much can of course be said about the discipline itself. But there is more to it—for if this is what our field of study must do, in virtue of its object, then its students must do so as well. Students of orthodoxy must seek to live out this Gospel  through daily life, not vicariously, not indirectly, but as a practical aspect of our theological discipline. To study orthodoxy as a Christian in virtue of the Lordship of Jesus Christ necessitates the active pursuit of a life of discipleship. And this entails more than voting with conscience, ethical consumption, charitable giving, or advocacy for just causes (though these are all good and important things): it entails the twofold ministry of mourning with those who mourn, rejoicing with those who rejoice, and so seeking community with those who have been cast out and starved by the sins of our society, both to share in their celebrations and stand with them in their sorrows. To put it another way; the study and proclamation of orthodox belief must be set in the context of active participation in the ministry of Jesus Christ, as borne witness to in Scripture—the ministry of building relationships of grace at the margins of society. Otherwise our words run the risk of senselessness at best, hypocrisy and deception at worst.

All this has felt absent in the atmosphere of Oxford. And this, I believe, is a significant source of the above discomfort: the feeling that the study of orthodoxy in the academy is all too often disconnected from its practice. This is little more than a feeling, I should say—a lurking discomfort, a sense, not a confident judgement. And it may all be thoroughly misguided and mistaken. Even so, the sense is there, a feeling of the absence or hiddenness of the idea that the life of the Church is the necessary context of catholicity; of the idea that if we seek to study orthodoxy as Christians, then an integral part of that study must be the living out of our responsibility to the all-encompassing claim of God’s command, given in both the Law and the Gospel. Again, this may well be more a matter of blindness on my part than any actual hiddenness or absence; but I can say with relative confidence that it isn’t evident in the patterns of our discipline at large (I cannot, of course, say anything about the lives of students in particular, which would be beyond presumptuous). And even if these principles are there, perhaps sitting modestly beneath the surface of our visible life, their implications are worth making explicit, so as to show the integrity of the whole.

To clarify, none of this is said to try and argue that practise trumps doctrine in terms of importance—this is not a ‘life over doctrine’ rant, and to set one against the other in terms of value or priority is to misunderstand both. Neither do I believe that doctrine should be reduced to concrete ethical proclamation or subordinated to the goals of secular morality (c.f. several liberation and liberal theologies); on the contrary, I believe it is essential to theological ethics that the study and formulation of doctrine retain its own formal integrity and independence from concrete ethical expression. Nor is this said as if practise could supplant prayer in theology. Rather, it is said under the belief that the autonomous study of orthodox Christian doctrine itself, insofar as its object is Jesus Christ, demands the pursuit of this life as its outworking, even (and perhaps especially) of its scholars. The redemption that is in Jesus Christ, Son of the Father, very God and very man, is no abstract matter: it is a matter of the concrete realities faced by the victims of sin, ourselves included. The formal, historical, and doctrinal proprieties of orthodox faith are important, but they are important because they serve to bring the concrete practice of this redemption into sharper focus. And without setting their study in the broader context of this practice, without bringing orthodoxy into encounter with the day to day life of dispossession, without engaging with both the joys and the sorrows of this life, the theologian is akin to someone who claims to be a chess-player after they have learnt a large amount of strategy, but never actually played a game; their claim is not strictly false, but there’s something not quite right about it too.

In any case, theology is not ‘a wonderful glass-bead game played for its own sake by its company of initiates in a quiet valley with no outward contacts.’ (Barth, The Christian Life, 96) It may well be, then, that one cannot be an orthodox theologian without a clear grasp of the Fathers, and in truth, I have no real opinion on this matter. In virtue of the subject of this orthodoxy, however, to articulate this faith outside of a life which seeks to share community with the widow, the orphan, the stranger, the alien, the poor, with those crushed by sin—to do this is to speak doctrine outside of the life of Jesus Christ, outside the life of Church, and so to rob the words of both their substance and their sense. They can only hang in the air; the institution of their use is lacking. The lecture halls, the classrooms, and the chapels of our academies are so often disconnected from many of the worlds where Jesus Christ spent his time; they are so often disconnected from many of the people with whom He built community (this is, it should go without saying, principally because we are lost and needy—not those to whom the academies are closed). We will not find the matter of Christian orthodoxy in these places, even insofar as they are indeed essential for learning its development and articulation. And whilst an understanding of this development and of this articulation is essential to the vocation of the theologian, if this understanding is prioritized to the exclusion of the life commanded by the object of orthodoxy, on both a personal and a disciplinary level, then it is a hollow understanding at best, falsity at worst.

Injustice can be found everywhere in the world, much of it in the cities around our theological institutions (in both Britain and America). Injustice can be suffered within the academy, of course, and we all of us can fall victim to isolation—but the call of Christ is still to follow him to where we are not. This call is not a grim call either: it is not a matter of some group from a position of strength reaching out to ‘help’ some group in a position of weakness, as if fellowship with the victims of injustice were some sort of ascetic or noble discipline on our part. Indeed, many communities on the margins, in my experience at least, know as much of joy, fellowship, and grace as anyone (often more). The Gospel does not command us to do favours for those we consider incapable of helping themselves out of our the goodness of our divinely-inspired benevolence. It instead commands us to seek relationships of grace for the sake of Jesus Christ—relationships which will prove just as important to our study and to our vocation as reading the works of the fathers.

So, if we wish make proclamations regarding the conditions of orthodoxy, then seeking community within the places of injustice should be of equal priority to other forms of theological inquiry. If we wish to study orthodoxy, then we should seek to love and be loved by others through the grace which lies at the core of that orthodoxy—and through this learn those truths of Christian faith which cannot be discovered in a seminar or substantiated within a text. We should do this for ourselves, we should do this for the sake of Jesus Christ, and we should do this for the Church. After all, how can we expect this orthodoxy—this catholicity — to invigorate the life of the Church, if it doesn’t even inspire us to dedicate everything we have to the pursuit of that life? And why would it matter that we’re able to proclaim that Jesus Christ is Lord through the most precisely orthodox formulations, if this Lordship doesn’t compel us to then try and manifest this ‘why’ of orthodoxy to the world?

To summarise: orthodoxy is essential because Jesus Christ is Lord. But the fact that its importance is grounded in the Lordship of Jesus Christ means that both orthodoxy itself and its study can only make sense in the context of the Gospel through which this Lordship is revealed. On a disciplinary level, this means that the study of orthodox theology must explicitly serve the Gospel, working in more and less direct ways towards the liberation of the captive. On a personal level, this means that the students of orthodoxy should pursue a life of discipleship with as much vigour as they seek precise and orthodox articulations of doctrine. This post was written because of a lurking sense that these principles are lacking in the air of the academy. This sense may be wholly mistaken—still unease persists, and so it seems worth writing on, even if that writing is in error.


The Referendum and Christian Theology

The UK’s dies irae is almost upon us, and I’ve decided to take the last opportunity to pontificate on themes related to the referendum and EU membership from a theological perspective. I’ve done so because it’s interesting, because theologians ought occasionally to justify their place in civil society by actually engaging with it, and because I promised Bill I would in the pub weeks ago. I also need a revision break.

I’ll consider three issues arising from my own theological interests; perhaps others will add their own. First, I’ll look at the idea of sovereignty, a concept to which many have appealed but few have dissected. Second, to the history of the English Church as both a national and European institution. Third, I’ve a few semi-relevant thoughts on what Theology has to say about the relationship of the Universal to the Particular.

Three caveats: I talk as much about England as the UK, largely because I suspect that the UK is really a state rather than a nation (a sometimes relevant distinction), but also because England dominates the UK demographically, constitutionally and ecclesiastically. I also use the EU and Europe semi-interchangeably, not because I think they’re the same (look up the Council of Europe) but because despite protests I still think it’s valid to discuss the former in terms of the latter. Finally, bits of this are a bit tongue in cheek, in a typically Oriel-theology overstated-but-somehow-still-ringing-of-the-truth way.

To wit:

Sovereignty in the UK, or, A Very British Theocracy.


Photo: Getty Images.

Secularists in a British context are often wont to argue that the United Kingdom is a theocracy on the basis that it is one of only two countries in the world to have unelected religious leaders sitting ex officio as members of its legislature. The other is Iran, and we are supposed to conclude that the Lords Spiritual who sit in our upper house are a Bad Thing. You don’t need me to tell you that this is a somewhat simplistic argument which overlooks some significant theological and political differences between the garden variety Church of England bishop and one’s average Iranian ayatollah.

But I’ll concede the secularist this: the UK does seem to be a de jure, though not de facto, theocracy.

Strictly speaking, in the UK neither the the people nor the nation state is sovereign; the Queen is. Executive authority is wielded in her name, so that our government is properly HM Government, rather than that of the people or the nation. The armed forces swear allegiance to her, rather than to Britain. Judicial authority is held, in theory, to come from the Crown too; justice is dispensed in Crown Courts by judges appointed by the Crown, sitting under the royal arms. Even parliament, which in the Westminster system of government trumps all the above, is not sovereign over and against the Crown; the Crown is a constituent part of parliament. The sovereignty of the Queen-in-Parliament is most obviously encapsulated in the formula which enacts laws passed at Westminster:

BE IT ENACTED by the Queen’s most Excellent Majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and Commons, in this present Parliament assembled, and by the authority of the same, as follows…

Yet this sovereignty, derived de jure from the Crown, is theologically legitimised and warranted. Look at any British coin (and indeed, many in Commonwealth Realms) and you’ll see the Queen proclaimed as Elizabeth II D[ei] G[ratia] REG[ina]. In all her official and legal titles, the Queen is Queen by the Grace of God. The Coronation Service involves an anointing with consecrated oil, a sacramental act inherited from ancient Israel via Constantinople and France, symbolising and effecting divine election and trust. That is, English sovereignty is sovereignty by God’s gift; it is properly only His, not hers, or indeed ours. This is of course, consonant with and a necessary corollary of Christian doctrine. There is only one sovereign power, besides whom there is no other, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords (Rev. 19).


Image: bullionbypost.co.uk, apparently.

This English doctrine of sovereignty is highly significant from a Christian theological point of view. First, it relativises human sovereignty in a helpful way. The sovereignty of the Crown-in-Parliament is held Dei gratia, and is therefore ultimately accountable to God. First and foremost, whatever the outcome of the referendum, theologians should articulate loudly and clearly the provisional, relative and delegated character of human sovereignty.

Second, the model and exemplar of Christian sovereignty Dei gratia must be Christ himself, the King of Kings. In our soft-theocracy, we have a properly normative pattern of sovereign action in Christ: his resolve to conform to the will of the Father, his views on violence and warfare, his concern for the poor and outcast, his view of the redemption (in various senses of the word) of man, and his willingness to suffer on behalf of those in his charge are always – the theologian ought to affirm – politically, ethically and (in the UK) constitutionally relevant to public discourse.

A further example: human rights. Christians believe that human rights are grounded in the status of human beings as beings-in-relationship with God, in his image and for whom He died, created only a little lower than God/the angels (Ps. 8). This provides in my view a strong (perhaps the only strong) foundation for human rights law and activism. The English doctrine of sovereignty as delegated by God, and responsible to God, joins the dots between legal and moral understandings of human rights: in the authority of the Queen-in-parliament, both are grounded in the great commandment which holds that love of God and love of neighbour are mutually implicative.

Finally, the English and Christian doctrine of sovereignty exalts the notion of personhood, in a way that is theologically satisfying and beneficial to citizens. In the British constitution, personhood takes priority over ‘the people’. Sovereignty is embodied, first and foremost in the person of the Sovereign herself, standing in a covenanted relationship with God and with her subjects. Our constitution is irreducibly personal, with sovereignty vested in the flesh and bones of an elderly woman, and of the various Lord Spiritual and Temporal, and in our elected representatives. The great mass of persons cannot be fully reduced to an abstract ‘people’ after the fashion of le peuple, or a homogenising, totalitarian Volksgemeinschaft.

What should we take from this? First, that quests for absolute sovereignty are, unless framed within the boundaries of Christian discourse, ultimately idolatrous. Sovereignty per se is a property of God, not any of us. Whoever wins the referendum must be reminded of this, and reminded of the theological underpinnings of their responsibilities to their fellow man. Second, we should consider the possibility that we have a responsibility to remind the European states of this concept of sovereignty, jettisoned by most of them during the long nineteenth century. Enlightenment absolutism – now democratic, then not so much – ought to be revisited and criticised from a Christian perspective. It may be that we have the power to do so from within the EU.

The Ecclesiastical History of the English People.

The popular perception of history in the UK is not particularly nuanced. This is perhaps partly due to a sense of being ‘in the right’ with regard to the greatest events of recent history: standing against the Kaiser, Nazisim and the Soviets. It’s also due to a popular historiography which hasn’t changed all that much (except perhaps with respect to social class) since Our Island Story, satirised and yet sustained by the likes of 1066 and all that. Elizabeth I is still ‘Good Queen Bess’; her sister still ‘Bloody Mary’. The EU, the Prime Minister, Boris, Gove, Sturgeon, Frau Merkel: in the tabloids they’re all fundamentally discussed as Good Kings and Bad Kings.

A major component of English history, and both sides in the debate are appealing to history, is its ecclesiastical history. And here we might want briefly to consider three main areas of interest.


Image: Wikimedia Commons.

First: Christian Britain and Christian Europe. It’s deeply unfashionable to consider in any depth, but both Britain and Europe have histories grounded in the thought and practice  of Christianity. Englishness and Britishness were both produced in strongly Christian contexts: the very idea of Englishness owes a great deal to the Venerable/Venemous (delete as appropriate) Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. One of the major factors in the formation of an English identity from the myriad Angle, Saxon and Jute settler groups, and from the great mass of pre-migration Britons, was their common experience of Christian identity as a Church centred largely on Canterbury and York. Yet this whole process was part of a much larger European movement: the missionary efforts of the Irish Church in Scotland and the North, and Gregory the Great’s decision to send Augustine to evangelise the South (non angli sed angeli). The popular perception of Anglo-Saxon Christianity is nineteenth-century and nationalist; tall blond men throwing Danes and Norwegians and Scots out of their lands. Few remember the victory of pan-European Roman Catholicism over Celtic provincialism at the Synod of Whitby; or the hugely influential archiepiscopate of the Asian-Greek Theodore of Tarsus at Canterbury; or Alfred the Great’s childhood visit to Rome for confirmation, at which he was invested as a Roman Consul! Even the historical, ecclesiastical geography of England is self-consciously European: London’s churches are as Roman as they get, with the two great churches of St. Paul and St. Peter (the Abbey!), and major parishes dedicated to such ultramontane saints as Clement and Pancras. Europe is stamped indelibly onto our Christian history. Britishness, though, developed in large due from the shared experience of the Protestant succession being defended post-1688 (boo! hiss!) against Catholic Europe; it is no coincidence that England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland continue to experience Britishness, and that the Republic of Ireland does not.

Second: England develops something recognisable as a proto-Westphalian sovereignty doctrine as part of the Henrician reformation. Brexit first happened in the 1530s, with the Statute in Restraint of Appeals (24 Hen 8 c 12) proclaiming:

Where by divers sundry old authentic histories and chronicles, it is manifestly declared and expressed that this realm of England is an Empire, and so hath been accepted in the world, governed by one Supreme Head and King having the dignity and royal estate of the imperial Crown of the same, unto whom a body politic compact of all sorts and degrees of people divided in terms and by names of Spirituality and Temporalty, be bounden and owe to bear next to God a natural and humble obedience.

Whatever one thinks of the principles involved in the Reformation Brexit, it bears considering its effects, not least to how “natural and humble obedience” was interpreted in a Realm shorn of right to appeal ecclesiastical cases overseas.

Third: those in favour of an ‘In’ vote stress the role that the EU has played in keeping Europe’s peace and advancing the cause of human rights over the last few decades. The counterargument stresses the equivalent role of NATO, a non-EU organisation. Here we might consider a third force, usually overlooked in this country: the influence of European Christian Democracy. Because the UK has no Christian Democratic party, we’re often blind to the historical and contemporary influence of this ideology on the continent and in the Union. Grounded in the social doctrine of the late-nineteenth and twentieth century popes, Christian Democracy has been a major factor in the post-war European settlement, motivating several of the great leaders of Europe from Adenauer to Merkel. I doubt either Boris or Cameron have read Rerum Novarum, but they should have done. It’s an important part of modern European politics.

The primacy of the Universal over the Particular.

Finally, Christian theology has something to say about universals and particulars; about unity and multiplicity. I won’t get into trinitarian analogies here, (a) because I’m suspicious of social trinitarianism, and (b) because they’re too trite even for me. But here are some thoughts:

Christianity does tend to put the universal ahead of the particular (not to be confused with the personal, see above). We believe in a human nature that can fall in Adam and be redeemed in Christ, whatever that means. Affirming that we share a single nature in imago dei, the Christian is pretty much bound to sign up to the late Jo Cox’s laudable affirmation that, “We have more in common than that which divides us.” [I note that this is a principle, not a policy, and is relevant to both the Leave and Remain camps in different ways]. In a similar vein, Ratzingerian theologians in the Roman Church have re-contextualised ‘eucharistic ecclesiology’ by pointing to the Church’s origins in the universal missionary function of the college of Apostles gathered around Christ, as prior to and the origin of the sum of local eucharistic communities. One might be tempted to apply similar reasoning to nations and states, as post-lapsarian realities, providential and God-given goods in themselves, which are nonetheless the result of tendencies in human society which Israel and the Church have classically discussed in terms of the story of the Tower of Babel. Whichever way the vote goes, Christian theologians in the UK and Europe are going to have a responsibility to articulate afresh a Christian theological vision of the relationship between mankind as a whole and our various national or ethnic subgroups.

Blogging my book: on norms of rational inquiry

As my co-bloggers know, I am writing a book on analytic theology and the academic study of religion. I’d like to use the blog to solicit comments and feedback to help me work through some things I’m thinking about. Right now, I’m thinking about the norms of rational inquiry that should be operative in a contemporary university, and how they pertain to theology. A concrete example will make clear what I mean.

Suppose you think that theology—by which I mean constructive, Christian theology*—is not a legitimate academic subject, and that it has no place in a modern “secular” university. What would you make of William Hasker’s recent book Metaphysics and the Tri-Personal God? (Previously and very ably discussed on the blog by Ed Brooks here and here.)

Although much of the argument is straightforwardly philosophical, Hasker also offers his own constructive proposal about how best to understand the doctrine of the Trinity, and the book advertises itself as a work of theology, not philosophy. He explicitly says that the argument of the book depends on the following assumptions:

  • God revealed himself in Jesus of Nazareth
  • The New Testament is a broadly reliable guide to the life and ministry of Jesus, including his resurrection
  • Divine providence guided the early church in its formulation of the trinitarian creeds

These are explicitly Christian assumptions. I take it that someone who denies that theology is a legitimate academic subject would also deny that a legitimate academic research project could begin from these assumptions. I disagree, and I am trying to formulate a response.

At root, I disagree with the hypothetical theology-hater because I myself think these assumptions are true. I also take it that a university is a community of scholars engaged in rational inquiry aimed at truth and at the production of knowledge. So whatever else it does, a university should foster lines of inquiry aimed at truth or knowledge and discourage lines of inquiry that are not aimed at truth or knowledge.

That’s clear enough, but it isn’t very helpful. It doesn’t give us a criterion by which we can recognize whether a given line of inquiry really is aimed at truth and the production of knowledge, but that question is exactly what’s at stake in the debate over the academic status of theology.

I’m trying to formulate a plausible, defensible criterion or a principle that would allow Hasker’s assumptions to count as the basis of a legitimate academic research project, but that wouldn’t allow just anything whatsoever. So, to subvert a Dawkinsian trope: I’d like a principle that makes room for explicitly religious reasoning in the university that also disallows, say, reasoning on the basis of astrology, phrenology, etc.

Here is one candidate: academic inquiry should begin only from assumptions that are known to be true . This seems far too restrictive to me.

No doubt a popular candidate would be some kind of evidentialist claim like: academic inquiry should begin only from assumptions well-supported by evidence . There is a lot to be said for this claim, though I would not want to restrict “evidence” just to empirical evidence, and it would not be easy to spell out a non-question-begging alternative sense.

Another alternative would be to go negative: Academic inquiry should not begin from assumptions that are demonstrably false. We could further spell out “demonstrably false” as something like: internally inconsistent, inconsistent with other claims known to be true, or empirically falsified by the best current science. This is a kind of “innocent until proven guilty” principle. I think everyone would agree that academic inquiry should not begin from demonstrably false assumptions, but is this principle restrictive enough?


(*I should also say that I’m mainly interested in Christian theology myself, but presumably any such principle would allow many other forms of religious reasoning too.)

On Vulnerability: Supporting Alec and Christians Facing Persecution

Usually when I talk about vulnerability, it's in the context of love and faith. It's typically related to the idea that loving entails being open to hurt and faith entails being open to a certain kind of uncertainty. Both of these possibilities are real enough, and both can ground anxiety and fear. They are both reason enough to treat this kind of vulnerability with respect.

There's also a certain kind of vulnerability in forgoing things with which we are often identified. Hair is a strangely important thing to our sense of self, to the extent that a change of hair can be a real statement of change of self. Control of our hair can help us control what kind of person other people think us to be. In this, hair can be a significant aspect of personal security. Getting rid of it entails a certain kind of vulnerability.

This is especially true for Alec Siantonas, a central writer on this blog—his hair and beard have almost taken on a life of their own. His majestic beard is almost as striking as his strange attachment to natural theology (the Lord works in mysterious ways). To shave it all off is an act of real vulnerability, I cannot help but feel.

The power of Alec's forthcoming shave, however, is not properly grounded in his vulnerability—it is grounded in the way that he is using it to point to a vulnerability which is profound and dangerous to the point of incomprehensibility. All the vulnerabilities above are indeed real enough, and they are valid concerns in our English and American contexts. The vulnerability entailed by love and faith for Christians in certain parts of the Middle East and Africa is of an entirely different order. The risk of believing in the Cross is not that it might lead you to change your life: it is the real possibility, to the point of certainty, that you will lose it. Proclaiming Christ, and Him Crucified, is a very different prospect when the price of doing so is execution—and in making himself vulnerable, Alec is bearing witness to just how little many of us know about the vulnerability of faith.

We are compelled to support those who are vulnerable in ways which we cannot begin to comprehend. We are compelled to support those for whom to choose Christian faith is to choose the constant risk of death—not, of course, to the exclusion of others who are just as vulnerable, but in solidarity with them as well. Alec is shaving his head and beard to raise money for three charities which are doing just this, and you can support his effort here, and you can follow his blog dedicated specifically to this subject here.

For my part, I'll be shaving my hair and beard off as well, at the same as Alec will be in England. I'm certainly jumping on his bandwagon, and my beard is significantly less magnificent, but I think that both of these facts matter less than the opportunity to support him in his efforts.

I'll be fundraising too, but I'll be doing so by directing people to Alec's JustGiving page. So, if you think the idea of me shaving off all my hair is good reason to support Christians facing genocide in the Middle-East, please click right here and donate to Alec's cause (it's a British site, but you can still donate from America).

Apart from all this, please pray for all those facing persecution in the world today, Christian or otherwise. Please pray for those who are vulnerable beyond our comprehension.



How to Cultivate Your Hedgerow

‘There are three conditions which often look alike
Yet differ completely, flourish in the same hedgerow:
Attachment to self and to things and to persons, detachment
From self and from things and from persons; and, growing between them, indifference’

– T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding.

Someone walks down a road in winter: a broken king, let us say, taking the way to Little Gidding during midwinter spring, which is its own season. Amid the transitory blossom of the snow, one live flower flourishes in the hedgerow. Here are three responses our king might make. In the first case, he turns aside to admire the flower, and then decides to pluck it and keep it for himself. In the second case, he still turns aside, but only to admire. He examines it carefully, delights in its colour and fragrance, but then leaves it behind, perhaps with a smile and a wistful sigh.  In the third case, the king does not turn aside. He glances towards it momentarily, registers its existence and its most obvious features, and then walks on unmoved. These, in ideally simplified form, are the three conditions of which the poet speaks: the first case is one of attachment, the second one of detachment, and the third one of indifference.

The right attitude, of course, is detachment.  ‘Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple’ as Jesus puts the point most starkly in Luke 14:26. Detachment is the second step of The Ladder of Divine Ascent, written in the 7th Century by a monk of Sinai: ‘The man who really loves the Lord…will not love, care or worry about money, or possessions, or parents, or worldly glory, or friends, or brothers, or anything at all on earth’. We are not, of course, commanded literally to hate, or even to refrain from loving, our parents. But the love we ought to hold for them is not the sort of love we find it easy to feel. The love we feel most easily is the love that would pluck the flower: it is attachment. The love to which we are called is the love that delights in the flower without needing to pluck it: it is detachment.

It’s all very easy to advocate detachment in the abstract, or to illustrate it with an example as neat as that drawn at the beginning. But the poet puts his feet upon a problem: the three conditions ‘often look alike’. Just what difference is there between loving your parents in the ordinary way, and loving as we are called to?  If the difference is small, why are we so called, and so sharply? If the difference is great, how doesn’t detachment collapse into mere indifference?

In practice, I admit that it’s very hard to say. That is partly why this call is so demanding. Though I will consider further examples, my main aim is provide a more theoretical account: what exactly is detachment, and why does it matter? I’m thinking of things like this. We have all our attitudes: our beliefs, desires, emotions, etc. Together, they represent the world as being certain ways. Specifically, they represent the value of things. The way we think and feel about a thing represents it as good or bad. The valuable world we represent to ourselves, however, is a centred world: it is necessarily focussed on us. The value we see in things is first of all value to us.

And that’s it. We are first of all, and most easily, attached: the value we see in things is first of all value to us. For me to be attached to something – a MacGuffin, let’s say – is for me to represent it as a good-for-me. My joy is bound up with it, and its goodness is bound up with the joy it offers me. Now it is unlikely that I would be completely attached to my MacGuffin in this way. On reflection, I would surely admit that, actually, I would probably be fine without the MacGuffin, and it would be just as well for the MacGuffin to MacGuff for someone else. But my habitual modes of thinking and feeling about the MacGuffin may nonetheless obscure this from me. I tend to represent it as a good-for-me, such that its goodness and my joy are bound inextricably together. Thus was our king moved to pluck the flower for himself.

The most radical alternative is not to represent the MacGuffin as good at all, not to think or feel anything in respect of it. This is the condition of indifference, and thus did our king pass the flower by. One could not maintain complete difference towards all things without soon dying of thirst, but it is still possible, though not at all desirable, to hold a deep and general stance of indifference. A further theoretical possibility also suggests itself: one could refuse absolutely to centre one’s world of value,: seeing things as good, but never relating that good to oneself. This is surely some moral advance on the case of pure indifference, but it is at least undesirable on the same practical basis: we need to think of water as good for us in order to survive. Nonetheless, one can imagine some approximation of this  attitude resulting from an over-zealous attempt to cultivate detachment.

What, then, is true detachment? It is see good things as good, and to relate their goodness to oneself, without seeing them as essentially related to oneself. I am detached from my MacGuffin if I really act and think and feel as if my joy does not depend on the MacGuffin, and the MacGuffin can be good without my enjoying it. This is quite compatible with wanting to enjoy it, with loving and desiring the MacGuffin. My love, however, is thoroughly sensitive to the fact that, if necessary, I can do without it, and it without me. Thus the king admires the flower, and leaves it be.

Here are some more concrete cases to consider. In Sense and Sensibility, Elinor Dashwood loves Edward Ferrars, and Marianne Dashwood loves Willoughby. Elinor is grieved to discover that her beloved is engaged to another woman, but she gets on with little difficulty. She is patient with the fiancée (who would try the patience of anyone less painfully connected with her) and attentive to her sister (of whom much the same could be said). Her love is true, but detached. She does not represent Edward’s goodness as essentially connected to her enjoyment of it in the least. Marianne, meanwhile, is utterly desolate to learn that her love is unrequited. For days afterwards, she does little but mope. She is attached to Willoughby. She cannot think of her joy and his goodness (such as it is) as independent of one another. I rather think that the novel would have been better had Elinor been less perfect at the outset, instead meeting Marianne halfway. We can imagine the plot going differently, such that Elinor begins by burying her feelings out of caution and timidity. She fails properly to represent Edward as good, and his goodness as related to her. Frustrated by her coolness, Edward makes a foolish engagement elsewhere, and the plot as it stands is set in motion. Thus would Elinor start as indifferent, and move towards detachment, as eventually Marianne does.

A further case is Der Rosenkavalier. The basic plot is this: a married woman takes a younger lover, who then leaves her for someone his own age. This could play out in one of three ways. In one case, the woman enjoys the sport of the affair, but does not really care about her lover or who he might turn to next. She is indifferent. In another case, she cares enormously about her lover, and cannot cope with his leaving her. Perhaps, in true operatic fashion, she plots to kill one or more of herself, her lover, and his new beloved. Or perhaps she simply despairs, unable to see a future without him, or to reconcile herself to his future without her. Finally, she could care about him while still accepting his decision. She does not despair, but feels joy for his new joy. Apparently, Strauss and his librettist originally intended to write the Marschallin as indifferent. The result would surely have been an indifferent opera. Fortunately, they were driven instead to create something of surpassing beauty. ‘With light heart and light hands, hold and take, hold and let go’ she sings in the first act; and so she does, splendidly singing, in the last. The Marschallin is marvellously detached.

So, how does one attain detachment? The most obvious way is also the hardest: go through the anguish of attachment and loss. Considerably easier is to do what I have been doing, and reflect on examples of attachment and detachment. But here are some more direct suggestions. First, concentrate on the whole range of what is actually good, and which one actually enjoys. The MacGuffin, whatever it may be, will only be a small part of it.I haven’t brought God in for a while. The mistake of attachment, from a Christian point of view, is this: the only good that is necessary for our joy is God, and everything that is good is ultimately so not because it brings us joy, but because it reflects God’s goodness. So the best solution to attachment is to remember the goodness of God. Remembering the goodness of cool water and birdsong and flowers wouldn’t go amiss, either, unless you happen to be a broken king. You can also try to change the way you think about the MacGuffin. Instead of concentrating on actual goodness and our actual enjoyment of it, we have a dangerous tendency to dwell on merely possible enjoyment, or lack thereof. We think of the good scenarios there might be with the MacGuffin, and the bad scenarios there might be without it. Now sometimes it is worthwhile to rehearse possible scenarios, but that is best done consciously and carefully. It is all to easy to slip into mere fantasy, and use those fantasies to fuel our feelings. Watch your thoughts, and try to keep yourself from getting lost in such fantasies. Those are the best strategies I know of for cultivating detachment.

I close with the trio from Der Rosenkavalier. The Marschallin’s song is as sad as that of any more conventionally tragic heroine, yet it also radiant. True, detached love is set forth for us in tones of lustrous renunciation. It is our part to love it and to imitate it. Whatever I should suffer, Lord, whatever I should lose, may my cry be as her cry: in Gottes Namen. With that same sorrow, and with that same strength. Let us all love like the Marschallin.