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.


John Ritzema and Bill Wood replied to my Aquinas homily by asking me to share some thoughts on the relationship between College, Christian worship, and the academic study of theology. On Friday the 18th of March, meanwhile, I was due to discuss the relationship between philosophy and faith at the upcoming Developing a Christian Mind conference. Instead, I will be praying for the repose of Graham Pechey at St. Bene’t’s Church in Cambridge. I write in response to all three stimuli.

What it is to lay down a life of the mind in love? This, it seems, is what Graham did. He was a man of deep thought, and faith as deep. He was curious about my own studies, and wanted to learn all about the ascent of analytic metaphysics, foreign as the idea struck him at first. I doubt he ever got round to reading the ramblings I sent him over Christmas, but I am sure he read his Daily Office till the end. He did not accrue a great deal by way of accolade or esteem, but he kept on seeking after understanding. Even in his last illness the national press was picking up articles he had edited  for The Journal of the T.S. Eliot Society.

Graham was a late convert, having been earlier an atheist and communist (as indeed my grandfather was throughout his life). He had been catechised personally by some of the senior clergy at St. Alban’s Cathedral. He recalled neglecting the basics in favour of abstruser doctrinal tangles. This neglect was no loss, since he still came to acquire what he called ‘the kneeledge’: that knowledge which can only be acquired by bending one’s whole being before the altar of the Lord. For Graham, as for the great Anglican poets he so admired, such puns were a sign of God’s providential ordering of all things, even the peculiarities of human language.

Life continues after the reception of communion, however, and indeed immediately after communion we pray to consecrate our lives, and all we do with them, to God’s service. And so there arises a question for me, as companion questions surely arose for Graham: how do I offer my enquiries into the nature of analytic metaphysics up to God’s praise and glory? What connects the knowledge won in libraries with the kneeling done in sanctuaries?

‘O Sapientia’, the Church cries in Advent (not to mention Graham’s beloved Laurie, protagonist of The Towers of Trebizond), ‘fortiter suaviterque disponsens omnia’. Christ the Wisdom of God orders all things: the peculiarities of human language; the metaphysical structure of reality; even, in Graham’s case, the thought of Soviet literary critics. In turning our minds to understand such things, we do reverence to that Wisdom. To labour over or delight in that understanding is to labour over or delight in God. As I preached in January, it is to follow the way of causation: we know God better the better we know what God has done. And to love God, we must first know Him. Strange as it may sound, when I consider what’s at stake when metaphysicians ask whether there are really chairs, or only sub-atomic particles arranged chair-wise, I really do believe I am thus drawing closer to the Arranger of all particles (or gunk?).

That, I think, is how knowing connects with kneeling. What has kneeling to do with knowing? Well, beside the way of causation, there is also the way of remotion: we know God better the better we know how far God differs from even the best of what God has done. As Graham was no doubt forcefully reminded in his final days, in order to arrive at what you do not know you must go by a way which is the way of ignorance. We bow before bread to learn that God is so unlike the sun or the Queen. We pray for the dead to learn that, whatever human persons most fundamentally are, they persist through profound changes in the arrangement of their physical parts. To our surprise, they are held in the hands of God.

It is all one, to study Soviet literary critics or to receive the Sacrament. It is to be still moving into another intensity, for a further union and deeper communion with the end who is our beginning. It is to advance by inches in the knowledge of the God who is Truth. Let the splendour of that Truth shine perpetually on Graham, and may eternal rest be granted unto him.


Humanity on Trial

In the U.S. state of Nebraska, State Senator Ernie Chambers filed a suit in 2008 against God, seeking a permanent injunction against God’s harmful activities, in an effort to publicise the issue of public access to the court system. The judge dismissed the case as the Almighty could not be properly notified, not having a postal address. The senator responded “Since God knows everything, God has notice of this lawsuit.”

The idea of putting God on trial cuts to the very essence of the Western, contemporary concept of humanity: we have autonomy; we have freedom; we have knowledge, to such an extent that we are no match even for God.

And it is this which C. S. Lewis argues as being quintessential of the modern human being in God in the Dock, an anthology of C. S. Lewis’ Christian apologetics. In this, Lewis argues that modern human beings, rather than considering themselves as being judged by God, prefer to act the judge and put God on trial themselves.

Lewis writes: “The ancient man approached God (or even the gods) as the accused person approaches his judge. For the modern man the roles are reversed. He is the judge: God is in the dock”.

This is a striking image. That amid suffering and cruelty, it is us who nonetheless are the powerful ones and can hold God to account. Unlike the traditional image of God as judge, punishing us when we transgress and commandeering our freedom, here we put God on trial.

And there was surely no greater birth of this “modern man” than the Holocaust. The inversion of the Enlightenment, in which the power of humanity was revealed not in all its glory, but all its horror and power.

So Lewis’ argument rings true when we consider the famous story of God on trial in the Holocaust. Former Auschwitz concentration camp inmate Elie Wiesel tells the story of 3 Jewish prisoners trying God in absentia for abandoning the Jewish people during the Holocaust.

They are said to have debated the charges levelled against God. Perhaps these were whether in allowing the Nazis to commit genocide, God broke the covenant with the Jewish people? Or, whether the Holocaust was an act of purification of a corrupted world, like Noah’s flood? Or whether it was evidence, as writer and Holocaust survivor Primo Levi argued, that God does not – indeed cannot – exist?

The theological question typically borne out of the Holocaust has been of our human response to suffering; how God, the loving God of our forefathers, could let the Holocaust and other such atrocities happen.

But I want to ask a slightly different question. Did God let the Holocaust happen, or did we too? And should we be putting God on trial at all – or humanity on trial?

When I think back to Lewis’ quote, I believe that the most apt modern response has been not to put God in the dock but put ourselves in the dock.

While we are inevitably judged by God, we also can and must judge ourselves. We must put humanity on trial.

It is incredible to think of a world in which the terms “genocide” and “crimes against humanity” did not exist. And yet that was the world pre-Holocaust.

It was in the aftermath of the Second World War in the Nuremberg trials, when for the first time in history, the traditional understanding of war crimes was not sufficient. It gave no provision for crimes committed by a power on its own citizens.

A new article was drafted in, to be called Crimes Against Humanity and for the first time, as both perpetrator and victim, we literally put humanity on trial.

On a more personal level, the Jewish response to the Holocaust has often been to seek justice.

In my first term at Oriel, I was privileged to sing in the memorial service for Sir Zelman Cowen, former provost of this College.

Zelman Cowen was born in St Kilda, Melbourne, on October 7 1919, the son of Russian immigrants whose families had fled to Australia to escape persecution.

During his teenage years he paid close attention to events in Europe and to the arrival of the first German refugees in Australia.

As news of the persecution of Jews in Europe trickled into his classrooms, he felt an obligation to stand up against fascism and to interpret its evils, on a human level, to Australian school friends for whom it all seemed so far away. He wrote a prize winning essay named ‘Pogrom’, a fictional story reflecting the Russian anti-Semitic pogroms he had heard about, including from his grandfather.

The theme of this year’s national Holocaust Memorial Day is ‘Don’t Stand By’ and Sir Zelman did anything but stand by. He saw the dangers of anti-Semitism and illiberalism as a teenager and began a lifetime of civic communication to educate the world about them.

That teenager with such a profound sense of justice would also become a consultant on legal matters to the British Military Government in Allied-occupied Germany.

Sir Zelman devoted his life to pursuing justice, seemingly a response to the injustice Jews faced in his childhood. How fitting that in spite of all the great public, civic positions he took in Australia, the UK and elsewhere, he wore his Jewish name as a badge of pride, a variant of Solomon, the king and great judge.

Perhaps most crucially, he regarded his own commitment to tolerance and freedom as stemming in part from his Jewish roots, and stressed:

“I have been conscious all my life of being a Jew. I have been conscious all my life of being a sharer in and a lover of the non-Jewish British world, but my Jewishness is deep in me.”

If my pre-War European and Russian great grandparents, shameful and fearful of their Jewish identities, could have been told that one day Jews would even reach the hallowed halls of Oxford at the moment they were certain our civilisation was on the verge of extinction, they would not have believed it.

And yet Sir Zelman, who grew up during the Holocaust was able to reach even the posts of Provost of an Oxford College and Governor-General of Australia.

Today, I am honoured to have been invited back to speak to you tonight, as an alumna of this College and as a Jew. I want to thank our Chaplain, Robert, not just for asking me to speak tonight but for all the ways he supported me over my 4 years at Oriel.

Sir Zelman and I are linked by a shared moral heritage stretching back to Deuteronomy and the call to value justice in the laws at the very heart of the Jewish religion. “Tzedek, tzedek, tirdorf” – “justice, justice, you shall seek”, it says in Deuteronomy. And the Talmud says that a scholar cannot live in a city without the institution of a bet din, a religious court of law.

But Judaism does not just teach us to enact justice ourselves – it also does not let us forget that we are ultimately judged by God.

This is no clearer than in our judgement on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year festival. This is the day when God judges the Jewish people and is known as Yom HaDin – the Day of Judgement.

The ‘Unetaneh Tokef’ prayer from the Rosh Hashanah liturgy, the New Year festival, when we are awaiting our sealing in the book of life on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, shows how central the concept of our own mortality is in the shadow of God’s great judgement:

“A man’s origin is from dust and his destiny is back to dust, at risk of his life he earns his bread; he is likened to a broken shard, withering grass, a fading flower, a passing shade, a dissipating cloud, a blowing wind, flying dust, and a fleeting dream.”

I believe the importance of this annual reminder of our own mortality and insignificance in the annual cycle of the year and life cannot be overstated and yet it is what C. S. Lewis brands as “ancient” and the exact inverse of how the modern man sees the world.

In this way, religion fundamentally goes against the grain of 21st Century human autonomy and individualism.

I have hinted at the importance of something very unappealing for people of today’s society, that even with all the technology and scientific advances we have achieved, not everything is within our power or reach.

There is something both comforting and terrifying in this possibility. We do not make the ultimate judgement. We cannot prevent or mitigate all suffering. In the final analysis, it is us who are judged.

The Jewish and human response to the Holocaust must not be to give up faith in God, or accuse God or put God on trial, like Lewis’ modern man.

Our greatest devotion must be to seek justice and confront the inequality we see around us, as Sir Zelman did and in this way to do justice to the lives lost in the Holocaust.

To put ourselves and humanity on trial.

Homily at Evensong to mark Holocaust Memorial Day, 24 January 2016, Oriel College Chapel.

Getting to Know God: A Homily for the Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas

Why are we all gathered here tonight, not only in a place of Christian worship, but one attached to a scholarly institution? The answer, I assume, is at least in part that we seek to know God. St. Thomas Aquinas, to whose honour this Eucharist is dedicated, had rather a lot to say on the topic of the knowledge of God. It sometimes makes for sobering reading. In this life, according to Aquinas, we cannot know God as He is in Himself. Even the blessed will never comprehend Him. So much the worse for knowledge, some would say: let us concentrate on love. I will be returning to that idea later: stated thus baldly, however, it would meet with the scorn of St. Thomas, and it is not worthy of any one  of us. ‘Love’, Aquinas says, ‘demands apprehension of the good that is loved’.  Love and knowledge are thus inseparable.

Fortunately, Aquinas’s real views are not quite as pessimistic as they sound. When he says that the blessed will never comprehend God, he means that they will never know Him exactly as much as God is knowable in Himself. Since God is infinite, He is infinitely knowable. However well a finite mind might know, therefore, it will never exhaust all there is to know in God. When he says that we cannot know God as he in himself in this life, he means that no idea we possess of God will be adequate to His nature, as, for instance, our idea of red is adequate to the colour red. We can still have a pretty great idea of God: it’s just that none our creaturely ideas can do complete justice to the Creator. This being so, what we ought to be after, if we sincerely wish to know God, is a better idea of Him. According to Aquinas, there are three principal ways to improve our idea of God: the way of causation, the way of eminence, and the way of remotion.

First, the way of causation. Aquinas holds that every effect is like its cause. Since God is the primary cause of everything, everything, but everything, is in some sense like God. We will know God better the better we know his effects. How might we practice the way of causation? ‘Come and see the works of God’. Look around you. Pay attention. Feel the wood of the stalls against your body, smell the incense on the air, watch the light flicker from the candles. These are all from God, and all these will lead us to Him. This is the way of causation.

The way of eminence is like unto it. Some of God’s creatures are more noble than others. Those that are greater, more fully in being, are more like the Creator who is Being Itself. We will know God better if we come to know the better among His creatures. How do we do so? ‘Love one another, as I have loved you’.  Again, pay attention: this time to each other. Love demands apprehension of the good that is loved. As human persons, we are all among the noblest of God’s creatures, and we all show forth our own pattern of perfections. Appreciate them. Love Robert for his hospitality, love Benji for his genial spirit, love Claire for her tender heart. I could, but won’t, go on. Apologies to those omitted, but that is the way of eminence.

Finally, remotion. We will know God better if we know better how far he differs from even the greatest of His creatures. We could try to think through the way of remotion, denying of God all those attributed unworthy of Him, but if we want a truly lively sense of God’s strangeness, the traditional position is that we do better not to think at all. ‘Be still and know that I am God’. Withdraw from perception and cognition, the portals through which the rest of the created world rushes in to meet us, and wait in silence for the Creator who has awaited you from eternity. The most venerable means of waiting is perhaps to sit down and repeat the name of Jesus, our God among us. ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon us, sinners’. I like to say more simply ‘Jesus Christ’ as I exhale, ‘have mercy’ as I inhale. It sometimes brings a wonderful peace, sometimes frustration and fear, and often it is just dull. Fortunately, given the frequency of the latter case, the point of the exercise is neither to feel a delectable peace, nor thrill to a holy fear, but to grasp the fact of God’s remoteness. Turning towards God requires turning away from the thoughts and feelings than which he is so entirely other. That is the way of remotion.

So, how do we get to know God? The way of causation, the way of eminence, the way of remotion. Causation: ‘see the works of God’. Smell the incense, see the candles, attend to all the trivial points set forth by our liturgy. Eminence: ‘love one another’. Remember each other in the intercessions, reach out to each other in the peace. Remotion: ‘be still’. Kneel before the altar. Wrench the whole of your attention from the world around, and focus it on the little bit nothing that is the body of your God.

How should we understand the demand for our submission to God? (or The Struggles of an Indecisive Undergraduate- part 2)

This post is the second – and final – part of my request for help to decide which topic would be the best choice for my undergraduate thesis. (You may have noticed that I started off talking about three topics, but luckily even just the process of writing an outline has allowed me to eliminate my least favourite!)

This final idea is the one I have done the most research into previously as it is part of a much broader project of feminist theology and issues of social justice with which I am interested. The less positive result of this research is that I have ended up with far too many questions to be answered in a single extended essay, and so part of my job with this would be to narrow down a specific question for a dissertation topic.

My interest in this particular area stemmed initially from an article I read entitled ‘Reorganising victimisation: the intersection between liturgy and domestic violence’ by Marjorie Procter-Smith. In this article, Procter-Smith asks what about Christian liturgy fails to stop domestic violence among the participating couples and she concludes that we should remove all symbols of submission from liturgy on the basis that this promotes the idea of women’s submission to men who are then violent.

At the time this struck me as an important observation, but one whose conclusion was more extreme than necessary. It seemed to me that not to draw any distinction between different types of submissive behaviour was far too crude.

As luck would have it, counter evidence which supported my feelings on this came from an unlikely source – a book by Marie Keenan on the sexual abuse of children in the Catholic Church (Child Sexual Abuse and the Catholic Church: Gender, Power, and Organizational Culture). One thesis, laid out in the latter part of the book, was that the driving force behind this abuse was not a deliberate attempt to exploit those who were less powerful than themselves, but stemmed from their own identification with loss of control and vulnerability which led to a lack of recognition that the children they were exploiting were in fact less powerful than themselves in the relevant respects.

What I took from this was the realisation that problems can arise from a lack of appreciation or appropriate recognition of power differentials, meaning that we cannot simply ignore the possibility of power dynamics or indeed act as though there were none – removing symbols of submission will not solve our problems.

The question which most powerfully connects these two points of view to the question I am investigating is one posed by Rachel Adler: whether disparities of power and authority are inherently oppressive or whether it is the abuse of these disparities that is unjust.

If the former is correct, and it is the existence of power dynamics that is problematic, then clearly we must say that this applies only to some power relations and not others. The relationships of parents to children, of teachers to students, are important and essential for healthy development but nonetheless do contain a relation of power which those at the higher differential are compelled not to exploit.

If this is an accurate representation, then, of course, we would want to class the relationship between ourselves and God in this ‘healthy’ category and the investigation would be able to go no further; though of course it may still be interesting to discover where to draw the line between the two categories, and to consider whether this relates to whether they are reflective of the nature of the individual or socially constructed, or if perhaps it is a reflection of the psychological or otherwise effect on the participants.

On the other hand, perhaps rather than considering simply a relation of two people we need to think about this in terms of what kind of relationship they are involved in. Power relations are more complex than a simple binary of ‘dominant’ and ‘submissive’ – a theme which I will return to shortly. In this case we should ask what kind of submission God is looking for from us. How we might attempt this is another question beyond the purview of this post.

If, however, the correct approach is the latter – that it is the abuse of power relations that are problematic – or indeed if it is some combination of the two, then we need to find out how we should or shouldn’t act on or within those power relations.

This issue links to my overall investigation because a major part of this is about what are appropriate actions to symbolise and cultivate that relationship, i.e. how we express our submission or dominance. As far as we are concerned, these two issues come together because we are trying to determine what kind of submission we are required to have in relation to God in order that we may act according to that relation and express it in our worship of Him.

Thus came my interest in discussing power dynamics at the dinner table (and any other contexts that I could work this topic into conversation). I have been particularly interested in the prevalent reaction of those I talk to: the assumption that I am discussing the sexual sphere.

I believe that human sexual relations are paradigmatic of the wider pattern of power dynamics in relationships as sex is such an obvious example of an action fundamentally tied to the gain and loss of control. I also believe that lessons learnt in this area can and should be translated to other areas of life.

The greater impact that this had, however, was to make me intensely aware of how dissociated sexual dominance and submission was in many people’s minds from other relationships, and to make me wonder whether this was not in fact quite a dangerous oversight.

In discussing this with a friend, she said that her experience of dominant-submissive relationships was incredibly similar to the conservative Christian model of ‘headship’ for heterosexual relationships. In fact, we concluded that the main difference between the two is that an enormous amount of work has been done by certain factions of the BDSM community to create safeguarding practices to protect the interests and well-being of those involved in so-labelled ‘dominant-submissive’ relationships, something which the conservative church has systematically failed to do.

This topic raises many questions, not least of which the concern that dominance-submission is not an appropriate model for human relations, sexual or otherwise, and that to impose this model upon all relationships is to disregard the possibility of equality.

This may be supposed to be a direct equality or a more complex understanding of ‘mutual submission’ but nonetheless, as interesting as these questions are – and I can admit to having planned on a full exposition of this area before I realised quite how long this post was already going to be – they are ultimately non-essential for the question I am attempting to investigate which is: ‘How should we understand the demand for our submission to God?’

The one thing I will say is that I am a firm believer that it is nonsensical to talk about a relationship which does not have a power dynamic. All relations between people, and in particular human sexual relationships, have aspects of power and control about them – be that control of the self or of another, or even the loss of control which comes with making yourself vulnerable to another person – and the question we need to ask ourselves is how those power dynamics are balanced, not whether they exist.

Regardless of whether or not we should be submitting in any way or in what way to each other, we are definitely called to submit to God as Christians, and so in this sense the question becomes, rather than ‘Should we submit to God?’, ‘How should we submit to God?’

We have a responsibility to relate to God, not just to have God relate to us, and this becomes incredibly important when we begin to discuss what our relationship with God should be.

The relevance of this point was highlighted most strikingly in a conversation I had with a guest visiting Oriel last term. She was a GP, and at one point, whilst commenting on an issue regarding Domestic Violence, remarked that it was incredible to see the difference that was made as the notion became de-stigmatised, insofar as victim-blaming was reduced; authorities became more sensitive, such as police treatment of those making accusations; and awareness campaigns made more and more women (and children) aware that they did not have to put up with that kind of violence.

Clearly, it is important not just for the person at the higher differential to understand that an abuse of power is going on, but also the person at the lower differential, so that they can seek to relate differently. Similarly, we need to be aware of healthy and unhealthy ways that we could submit to God so that we can prevent the harm caused by those who teach us to relate to God in an unhealthy way. If we can understand what healthy or unhealthy models of submission to God would look like then we can relate to God in a way which reflects what we need, not simply what we may have been told.

One way in which we may discover what is healthy is through adopting the BDSM safeguarding practices of examining what we need from a relationship. Surely, it is not controversial to suggest that God, as the ultimate towards whom all of our desires are truly aimed, will be exactly and perfectly what we need, even if this truth isn’t always obvious to us. Sarah Coakley has written in detail on the divine ecstatic yearning of Trinitarian spirituality and how the gap that we feel can only truly be filled by the infiniteness of God.

In utilising this practice we have to ask of ourselves how we need to relate to God, to submit to God; in what way is God utterly necessary to us, in what way can this submission be healthy, even life-giving, conforming to an appropriate power dynamic. Thus, we may find the exact way in which we need to submit ourselves, to give over control of ourselves, and that God is exactly the right ‘thing’ for us to submit to.

Before the criticisms can arrive, pointing out my assumption that we all have a need to submit ourselves in some way, I would just like to comment briefly on one area in which this kind of thought has been challenged.

I should first point out that it seems far too simplistic to rely on a binary model of ‘dominant’ or ‘submissive’ labels. These may be terms used in describing BDSM culture, but they are generally accepted to be rough labels – assigning a particular role or particular aspect of the self, not a proclamation on the totality of the individual being.

That is to say: someone who identifies as a ‘submissive’ in BDSM practices is not submissive in every aspect of their personality or in every part of their life, nor are they necessarily practising this all of the time. These terms begin to break down at a more detailed level of analysis.

Secondly, there is a real problem in using these terms due to the difficulty in defining them. What actions or more-easily recognised qualities do these labels translate into? For instance, is submission equivalent to obedience? But in many circumstances the one who chooses to obey has the power to stop obeying, at which point the one being obeyed cannot force their will to be carried out. The submissive then has a certain power over the person they are obeying – they are choosing to fulfil their wishes – is this still acceptable then as a definition of pure submission? Is this to be regarded as submission at all?

It seems that relations of power and control between people are much more complex than such a false binary would allow, and this is due in part simply to what makes us human – our autonomy, our wills and ability to consent, to decide, and to involve ourselves or not.

This becomes relevant to the point I’m trying to make by comparing this understanding to arguments made by other eminent scholars. In the work of some thinkers, some social groups (e.g. women, black people, those living in extreme poverty) are seen as consistently oppressed and in need of liberation. This may be used to argue that they should not be told to submit – a fair and important point. However, it seems crazy, given the issue just discussed, to argue that what one particular person needs is entirely to submit (or indeed entirely to dominate).

This suggestion, that models of submission should not apply to a particular social group, is often supposed to be a compensatory gesture: they have already submitted too much/are so prone to submission/submit so much in x aspect of their lives, that they should not submit any more.

But submitting to God is about each individual’s relationship to God and what they need from it. Even if all that someone needs from the human sphere of interactions is not to submit any longer, the relation between self and God is primary, basic and more compelling than anything in the broken human world, or at least it should be if envisioned correctly.

The writers such as Serene Jones who propose alternative models of relation are making interesting and valuable points in terms of how we should be called to live our Christian lives and how oppressed people survive in the human world of guessing-games about God. But ultimately, many of her concerns should fall into the questions of how we relate to God, how we submit to God in a way that does not shatter the fragile remainder of our selves but makes it whole again. And this is something which can be true only for each individual, it cannot be defined or distributed on the basis of the social classes that one is part of.

Theatre in the Church (or The Struggles of an Indecisive Undergraduate- part 1)

I am writing this blog post partly as a request for help: I’m starting to think about writing a dissertation for FHS but I have found myself with the interesting problem of having three possible topics that I would really like to write about. Since Bill tells me it’s not actually possible for me to submit three dissertations (a real shame…) I have written an outline of each of the areas I am interested in in the hope that the readers of this blog might be able to help me decide which would be the best choice.

I’ve tried to keep each one fairly short (the others to follow soon…) so that some people might read all three, but even if you only read one of them I’d be really interested to know your thoughts on whether or not it would be a good choice. (That said, I reserve the right to entirely ignore your opinions if I feel like it!) Thanks in advance!


The first topic I am considering relates to my recent interest in liturgy. I am interested in a description and, I suppose, justification for what I would call ‘sacred theatre’, whereby I outline how we could understand the variety of ritual and ceremony employed in the Church of England at the Mass – as a model applicable to the church more generally – in terms of their being examples of ‘sacred theatre’.

This label is based on the belief that if we can have sacred and secular music, the former of which has an established place in worship, there should be no reason why we could not theoretically have both sacred and secular theatre.

The OED definition of ‘theatre’ is “a play or other activity or presentation considered in terms of its dramatic quality”. My use of the term ‘theatre’ in this context then picks up on aspects of this definition and concerns the re-creation or communication of a story.

Stories, generally speaking, are incredibly important for us, indeed I believe that they are our instrument of meaning, that is to say: something becomes meaningful to us when it can be understood as a story, or as part of one. I don’t think it is irrelevant or accidental that our stream of consciousness writes itself like a story; I think this is tied up in the way that we view our experiences as stories and attach meaning to those things as far as their narrative intersects with our own.

Stories are therefore a powerful medium of the communication of meaning to us, and Christian worship has long made use of stories of testimony or insight, Bible stories – in particular the story of the passion of Christ, amongst others, to communicate the message of the Christian faith in a more powerful way to its congregation.

Similarly, the sacrament of communion is told through a story: the liturgy surrounding the act, indeed the whole service, is the retelling – the re-communicating – of a narrative into which we are taken up. When we receive the sacrament we become part of that story, part of that process which repeats itself again and again.

And so when we talk of sacred theatre we are discussing the re-enactment of that story, the participation in that story, the dramatic activity through which that story is communicated. This is how we should think of the ritual, or lack thereof; of liturgy in a more general sense – as different choices of how best to tell the story.

How that story is best communicated will depend on the person experiencing it, for example: at my regular Sunday morning mass there is always a highly aesthetic element – the beauty of the ceremony a reflection of the beauty of the gift we are to receive.

The thing about theatre is that every element of it – be it costumes, actions, lighting, sound, music, dance, speech or anything else – is essential because it is essential to the telling of the story as powerfully as possible.

Different people will choose to tell a story in different ways, and no one choice can be objectively classed as better than another, but is merely evaluated on its accordance with criteria individually judged to be important or on its subjective impact on those who wish to live that story.

It would be possible, and indeed interesting, to evaluate each aspect of the ritual – considering its role in this sacred theatre and how it serves the purpose of the telling of the story. What is most important, however, is that each and every detail of ritual or ceremony or worship is purposed by the bringing to life of the narrative. Intricate vestments or loud music or beautiful words are only valuable to this project insofar as they bring to life the story of the sacrament which is the substance of the rite.

This is how I think we justify the importance of the multiplicity of approaches to the performance of the Mass in the Church of England: each person must find the way in which that story is communicated to them most powerfully, so that they may find themselves taken up in it.