Tuesday, October 31, 2006


It's not the gentlest piece of writing, but doyen literary and cultural critic Terry Eagleton, a sceptic once associated with the radical Catholic 'Slant' agenda, has written an appropriately devastating review of Richard Dawkins' best-seller, The God Delusion, in the ever-stimulating London Review of Books. No mere 'religious troll' he; I thoroughly recommend Eagleton's Figures of Dissent (Verso, 2003) - which celebrates and excavates the intellectual awkward squad. Everyone from The Frankfurt School to Slavoj Zizek, via Wittgenstein, Northrop Frye, W. B. Yeats, Stanley Fish, Norberto Bobbio and a cast of other unlikely and angular characters.

For his LRB polemic, Eagleton begins: "Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology. Card-carrying rationalists like Dawkins, who is the nearest thing to a professional atheist we have had since Bertrand Russell, are in one sense the least well-equipped to understand what they castigate, since they don’t believe there is anything there to be understood, or at least anything worth understanding. This is why they invariably come up with vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince. The more they detest religion, the more ill-informed their criticisms of it tend to be. If they were asked to pass judgment on phenomenology or the geopolitics of South Asia, they would no doubt bone up on the question as assiduously as they could. When it comes to theology, however, any shoddy old travesty will pass muster."

Terry Eagleton is the John Edward Taylor Professor of English Literature at the University of Manchester. His latest book is How to Read a Poem.

[Graphic (c) The Guardian. With grateful acknowledgment]

Comment on this post: FaithInSociety

Monday, October 30, 2006


Occasionally I get sent surveys or asked research questions. Sometimes they are quite complex, at other times deceptively simple. My instinct is to feel sympathy for anyone so down on their luck that they seriously think I’m going to illuminate their darkness. But that’s just an inverted form of arrogance, so I usually try to offer something back. A couple of weeks ago I was asked if I could provide “abbreviated responses to the following questions: what is Christian faith? What does it mean to be a Christian?”

Er… right. No getting out of that one. Or is there? The former Archbishop of York, John Habgood, was once asked by a popular magazine for a simple twelve-word definition of Christianity. He refused to respond on the grounds that a proper answer could not be trivialised in this way. He had a point, but ended up sounding unbearably pompous. On the other hand, Karl Barth, one of the towering intellectual figures of the twentieth century (whatever you make of his theology), was not too proud to respond to a similar enquiry by quoting, without embarassment, a children’s hymn: “Jesus loves me, this I know; for the Bible tells me so.”

It is immediately obvious to me (as to you, I’m sure) that I possess neither the status of Habgood nor the humble wisdom of Barth. But I decided to have a go, anyway. Fools, angels, daring to tread – you get the picture. I’ll tackle the first question today, and the second one tomorrow or the day after. Just to be predictable. And my initial response, below, is unashamedly modelled on the (shorter) answer that David E. Jenkins gave when pinned down by a group of students. You can look up the original in God, Jesus and Life in the Spirit (SCM Press), one of the trilogy of essay-collections he compiled partly in response to ‘the Bishop of Durham Affair’, during which his off-the-cuff comments about aspects of Christian doctrine were reduced to those unfair media stereotypes that have followed him ever since. But that’s another story. Anyway, the Christian faith, from my point of view, might reasonably be crystallised in these four short statements:

God is.
God is as we meet God in Jesus
(life embracing death and transforming it into love)
Therefore there is hope.

The world is.
The world is what it is in the Spirit's gift
(renewing energy in the face of decay).
Therefore there is value.

Persons are.
Persons are what they are in God’s image
(freed from all fixed forms and ideologies)
Therefore there is a future.

The church is.
The church realises itself as peaceable community
(a fallible experiment in forgiveness)
Therefore there is purpose.

Yup, this begs a lot of questions, I know. Confessions are never the final word (which doesn’t belong to us, and is abused when we think it does). They are an invitation to hopeful-but-critical experimentation. So over to you…

Comment on this post: FaithInSociety

Tuesday, October 24, 2006


I see that a network within the Methodist Church in Great Britain has launched a new weblog aimed at providing a general discussion forum for people interested in the connections and interaction between Christianity and culture. It's called Interface, and contains sections on arts/entertainment, the environment, politics, religion, science/medicine and social issues. Nothing too notable or in-depth on there at the moment; but it looks accessible and is, as yet, in its online infancy. They are seeking more female commentators, especially. Web punditry seems to be a bit of a 'guy thing', and as yet (sadly) women hold up much less than half the cyber-sky. Or maybe it isn't sad at all, just sane {cough}. There's currently an on-site poll on whether 'virtual churches', like St Pixels, are valid alternatives to actual church communities. I wouldn't mind betting that the responses to that question are gendered in a particular way, too...

Comment on this post: FaithInSociety

Monday, October 23, 2006


This weekend saw two constrasting forays into the 'religion and public life' debate. The first was a call (by the Evangelical Alliance UK) for Prince Charles to guard his cudgels as Defender of the Christian (and, specifically, Protestant) Faith at his Coronation. The second was, contrastingly, a feature in The Sunday Times asking whether it is time to take 'God out of the state' altogether. In this context Ekklesia is urging a radical change in the way that the debate about religion and politics is framed. Well, actually, we've been urging it for some time. But those who get an adrenalin buzz from a simple, brutal clash between two lumbering monsters called 'belief' and 'secularity' continue to make much of the running, unsurprisingly. This is because most public argument about religion (actually an ethnographic fiction which disguises as much as it reveals) has become pretty much tone-deaf to nuance, and is therefore ready prey for the mutually reinforcing rhetorics of self-assertion and other-bashing. It's neither an edifying nor a life-giving standoff for any concerned, be they wearers of religious or anti-religious clothing. But it will continue until and unless we can find ways of resourcing the 'debate' with more light and less heat, more engaged humanity and less homogenizing abstraction.

One of the subterranean consequences of the demise of Christendom in the West, of course, is that people both outside and inside church communities have increasingly lost touch with the depth of the language of faith - substituting for it (in some quarters) a blithe assumption that it amounts to little more than a child's comforter, and (in others) that it subsists in the knock-down authority of the Bible, the magesterium, or some very tribal version of religious imagination. Here lies the road to nowhere. Somehow this glorious noticeboard blooper [see picture] sums up where we're all at. Hopefully we'll start to get the joke - and realise that it may be on us.

Meanwhile, on the matter of confusing God and governance, haven't faith groups and secularists yet noticed that civil society exists precisely to provide a mediating space between state power and communities of conviction? And what is the EA on about? It claims to exist for the sake of 'biblical truth'. So how come it is urging Christians to put their trust in princes and their realms, rather than the Lamb Who was Slain (by the powers-that-be, lest we forget)? Neither reason nor the New Testament seem to get much of a look-in.

It's all very odd...

Comment on this post: FaithInSociety

Sunday, October 22, 2006

[19.34 GMT] APOLOGIES to those of you trying to get through to Ekklesia on Monday and Tuesday of this week. Due to a server problem at our ISP, the site was down for a full 48 hours. There have been a number of shorter 'outages' of late. We are looking at the possibility of a new host. Meanwhile, I've just got from a fascinating trip to Brussels and Bruges, accompanying a group of Anglican clergy from the South of England as they reflected on what "a soul for Europe" might look like in the light of EU expansion... My paper, 'A European state of mind?' is currently going through a remix after some useful discussions.

Comment on this post: FaithInSociety

Sunday, October 15, 2006


W. H. Auden, without doubt one of my favourite wordsmiths, famously observed that the true poet is a person unreservedly in love with language. That ought to be profoundly true of the theologian, too - one committed to the precious beauty of the fleshly Word. Of course there's an inherent paradox here. To speak of God, we need language which continually exceeds what can be said, in order to portray (but never capture) the truth that God is beyond all we can imagine, say, believe or disbelieve. On the other hand, the theologian is also there to point out that the radically new language is actually that which we surprisingly inherit - not just something we arbitrarily make-up. And, crucially, (s)he is there to help Christian speech to find ways of distinguishing between faith and fantasy, praise and pathology. To explore, in the helpful formulation of my friend Johan Maurer, "examples of people using Christian rhetoric either to seek or to avoid reality".

Both Auden and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, to whom the following famous poem is dedicated, were involved in precisely such a vocation, in startlingly contrasting ways. Friday's Child is about the breathtaking implications of God's refusal of force. I consider the limitations of the male pronoun a necessary chastisement...

He told us we were free to choose
But, children as we were, we thought---
"Paternal Love will only use
Force in the last resort

On those too bumptious to repent."
Accustomed to religious dread,
It never crossed our minds He meant
Exactly what He said.

Perhaps He frowns, perhaps He grieves,
But it seems idle to discuss
If anger or compassion leaves
The bigger bangs to us.

What reverence is rightly paid
To a Divinity so odd
He lets the Adam whom He made
Perform the Acts of God?

It might be jolly if we felt
Awe at this Universal Man
(When kings were local, people knelt);
Some try to, but who can?

The self-observed observing Mind
We meet when we observe at all
Is not alariming or unkind
But utterly banal.

Though instruments at Its command
Make wish and counterwish come true,
It clearly cannot understand
What It can clearly do.

Since the analogies are rot
Our senses based belief upon,
We have no means of learning what
Is really going on,

And must put up with having learned
All proofs or disproofs that we tender
Of His existence are returned
Unopened to the sender.

Now, did He really break the seal
And rise again? We dare not say;
But conscious unbelievers feel
Quite sure of Judgement Day.

Meanwhile, a silence on the cross,
As dead as we shall ever be,
Speaks of some total gain or loss,
And you and I are free

To guess from the insulted face
Just what Appearances He saves
By suffering in a public place
A death reserved for slaves.

Comment on this post: FaithInSociety

Saturday, October 14, 2006


A recent and contested BBC programme has highlighted once more the continuing terror and tragedy of sexual abuse in the church. Even more devastating is the US film Deliver us from evil. A recent article on Slate.com makes it clear why institutional denial and defence are entirely inappropriate responses to what is at stake in all this. We are dealing with profound sickness, not mere symptoms.

"What may be hard to stomach for some Catholics is Amy Berg's intimation that cases like Fr Oliver O'Grady's [pictured] are not merely terrible moments in the church's history, but intrinsic to its structure. After all, as a psychologist specializing in clergy abuse points out, if all sex acts outside of marriage are regarded as sinful by the church, what's to differentiate child molestation from adult consensual sex? Another interviewee, a scholar of the church, points out that 10 percent of graduates from one well-known seminary are known pedophiles and wonders whether the church's refusal to relinquish the celibacy requirement might not be attracting sexual deviants to the priesthood.

"Former Oklahoma Governor Frank Keating's comparison of the church to the Mafia drew widespread ire when he made it in 2003, but Berg's rigorous investigation of the O'Grady affair can't help but give it some credence. Watching Cardinal Mahony lie, mumble, squirm, and lie some more in taped court depositions also can't help but evoke the Watergate hearings—Mahony even looks a little like Nixon. But whether you think of the pedophilia scandal as organized crime, as political allegory, or just as a tragic aberration, Berg makes a compelling case that it went all the way to the top. Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, helped tweak church law to prevent the internal release of documents that might incriminate pedophile priests. After Ratzinger took office as the new pope, he requested immunity from investigation from George W. Bush—a favour he needn't have asked for, since all heads of state are automatically granted diplomatic immunity."

Comment on this post: FaithInSociety

Friday, October 13, 2006


"Learning to tell the truth takes time, attentiveness, and patience. Good learning calls no less than teaching does, for courtesy, respect, a kind of reverence; reverence for facts and people, evidence and argument, for climates of speech and patterns of behaviour different from our own. There are, I think, affinities between the courtesy, the attentiveness, required for friendship; the passionate disinterestedness without which no good scholarly or scientific work is done; and the contemplativity which strains, without credulity, to listen for the voice of God - who speaks the Word (s)he is, but does not shout." Nicholas Lash.

['Cacophany and Conversation', from The 2002 Prideaux Lectures delivered at Exeter University]

Comment on this post: FaithInSociety

Thursday, October 12, 2006


Yesterday's exchanges between Tony Blair and David Cameron in the House of Commons ('Question Time') were highly entertaining. Pure theatre, indeed. Cameron, mercifully blessed with a PR talent that has so far enabled him to avoid spelling out what the supposedly nicer Tories would actually do, laid into the government's shambolic presentation issues. And he actually managed to get an obviously rattled PM to admit, entirely inadvertently, that there are cuts ("er... changes") going on in local health services. Mr Blair, meanwhile, rehearsed his usual litany of statistics to prove that New Labour was spending more and transforming wider than any government in history. All great puppeteering fun. But let's not forget that when it comes to basic orientation (managing global capital, the war on terror, marketising society, preaching green and acting lean) these two stand shoulder to shoulder. And while investment in health and public services has increased, and the situation is neither as apocalyptically bad nor as gleamingly good in the NHS as either suggest, there are real causes for concern. Moreover, it is difficult to feel that the system is safe in either's hands when spin and point scoring seem to win out so regularly over the hard graft of politics. This is a side show on a perilously squeezed centre-ground that remains in danger of bypassing the real issues.

Comment on this post: FaithInSociety
[06.54 GMT] The veils governing our own thinking Oct 11, 2006 - Simon Barrow says bridges not barriers will help relations with Muslims. (A revised version of my earlier extended comment piece on the Jack Straw hijab saga.)

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

[10.04 GMT] As the Anglican row about sexuality rumbles on, and 'global south' primates seek a division of the Communion predicated on what they perceive to be their own unassailable rightness, other voices are making themselves heard -- rightly challenging the idea that there is a monopoly of tradition and exegetical wisdom in this group. The best known critics are from Africa -- including ex-Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and his successor in Cape Town. Nick Holtam, rector of St Martin-in-the-Fields, London, has also written this very good open letter on the theological and ecclesial issues. Hat tip to Thinking Anglicans.

Friday, October 06, 2006


Good governance needs bridges not barriers in relating to Muslims
Many people will no doubt argue that Commons leader Jack Straw has been brave and comparatively sensitive in raising the question about whether the full veiling of Muslim women is an impediment to positive community relations in plural Britain. But irrespective of the view one takes about the specific issue of coverings (and it is a very complex one), Mr Straw’s approach reveals, yet again, a subterranean negativity in its relations with diverse Muslim communities. What is being promoted is the policing of boundaries, rather than the positive building of bridges. In considering the purpose and impact of Mr Straw’s remarks, and in highlighting constructive alternatives to the government’s ‘boundary control’ strategy, it is important to see them as part of a wider pattern. Continued.

Comment on this post: FaithInSociety

Thursday, October 05, 2006


A poem by Georgene L. Wilson

It took an indulgence of insights
And a mess of memorable moments
To grind the life-lens
That granted gazing wisdom
To Francis of Assisi's deep heart.
Once he perceived the epiphany of
"All is God"
He became the perfect mirror image of
"All is Good":
Grace grown glowing in simple grandeur!Francis disrobed himself of
Fame, fortune, and facade.
He donned habits of
'No-holding' yet All Embracing'.
He sang blessings on the creature and the Creator.
Self-empting was filled with the trusting abundance of Holy Poverty.
Perfect joy issued celebrative chants of Goodness.
Pardon and forgiveness bore the fruit of reconciling Peace.
Still now he is missioned:
To shine as light in darkness,
To breathe hope in despair,
To fathom freedom in fear, and
To channel unity in diversity
Through you and me,
As instruments of peace and goodness.
This way of seeing life is deep love:
Incarnating grace,
Engaging compassion, and
Dialoging harmony,
Is a simple spiritual practice.
Bless with beauty, truth and goodness!
Offer a heart of praise and affirmation

Georgene L. Wilson is a Wheaton Franciscan Sister. She is poetry editor of Interreligious Insight (found in IRI V2 N3 July 2004). The (c) of 'Francis: Troubador of Goodness' is the writer's. Its insights are gifted to us all. I share it in that spirit. Many thanks indeed to Peter Challen for passing it on to me and to others.

Comment on this post: FaithInSociety

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

[20.42 GMT] TRAGICALLY HIP... Ekklesia has acquired a MySpace site, which you can visit at your leisure. The 'age' is an averaging of mine and Jonathan Bartley's.

Heads up to David W. Critchley of Winslow, Buckinghamshire, for his letter in The Times yesterday, acutely undercutting the lastest version of various simplistic 'clash of civilization' theses. This stuff may sell airport books by the bucketload, but it doesn't help us to get to grips with the actual complexities of the world. Apart from setting up unhelpful self-fulfilling prophecies, that is... Anyway, Mr Critchley writes:

Anthony Gee argues that the world is witnessing a clash between moderates and extremists (letter, 28 September, 2006). Into which category would he place the rich young man of Assisi who took to wearing a beggar’s clothing and kissing the hands of lepers, driven on, according to his contemporaries, “by a very intoxication of the divine love”, St Francis?

Quite. As I often like to say: there are two kinds of people in the world; those who think there are two kinds of people in the world, and those who don't. I count myself in the latter category. (I should note, for those who haven't, that today is the 'saints day' for Francis of Assisi. There is a free online biography courtesy of the Gutenberg Project to be found here.)

Comment on this post: FaithInSociety

Tuesday, October 03, 2006


In another fit of establishment condescension, the Church of England has put out an astonishingly disingenuous statement on church schools and their admissions policies. They seem to be counting on a small act of generosity detracting from a larger problem, and as usual will try to dismiss critics as 'bitter secularists'. But this is untrue and unfair. Faith schools have their religious critics too, and there are good theological (as well as sociological and educational) reasons for disliking the current mess.

The Church's stance remains wholly inadequate since it continues to use church-going as a way of assigning publicly-funded school places. This is not only wrong, it is also fundamentally un-Christian in principle, as far as I'm concerned.

The chair of the Church of England Board of Education, the Rt Rev Dr Kenneth Stevenson, Bishop of Portsmouth, has written to Education Secretary Alan Johnson to say that all new Church of England schools should have at least a quarter of admission places available to non-Christians but Parliament should not expect the same commitment from other faith Communities. But the heart of this policy remains discriminatory. It is nonsensical to claim that it promotes social cohesion and inclusivity, when a range of religious schools practice a variety of admissions policies with religious observance as a criterion.

The Church of England's latest announcement is simply a gesture towards social and educational inclusion in the face of an overall policy which is, at heart, designed to privilege church-goers over others in publicly funded schools. It is entirely inappropriate for Christians to seek to give themselves advantages of this kind. Self-interest stands in opposition to what the Christian Gospel is about. A truly "Christian school" would be one that seeks to be open to all and which pays particular attention to the needs of marginalized and poorer communities.

Remarkably, the C of E Board of Education does not even know how many of its schools actually operate discriminatory admissions policies.

Comment on this post: FaithInSociety

Monday, October 02, 2006


[O]ur thinking about the nature of the European Union can be enriched by the kind of mutually nourishing pluralism [arising from] the theological language of our [Lutheran and Anglican]traditions. The society of states needs just the same balance between supposed autonomy and competing self-interests on the one hand and bureaucratic, rootless centralism on the other as we need in the life of the Church. And if we are to avoid centralising strategies for economic and social justice, we have to foster, as Christians, a vision of society within each state that will realise mutual responsibility and a vision of the community of states that will produce structures of co-operation and consultation, in economic life especially, capable of addressing the crises that no isolated state can cope with – the needs and rights of migrants, the control of the trade in arms, large and small, ecological pressures, the management of disease prevention as a cross-national concern and so on. If we believe in a common hope for humanity and in the possibility and imperative of mutuality in working towards this hope, we as people of faith are bound to be concerned with transnational structures in some degree, not out of utopian convictions about transnational government, but in order to discover how we specifically and concretely take responsibility for all the things that are beyond any definition of national interest alone. (Rowan Williams, from his recent Frieburg Lecture)

Comment on this post: FaithInSociety

Sunday, October 01, 2006


Dealing with religion can certainly mean entering "the danger zone", one way or another. So the generally fabulous St-Matthew-in-the-City in Auckland, New Zealand, have put up the notice you see before you at their front entrance. Writes vicar Glynn Cardy: "This is our new billboard, put up in conjunction with the annual SPCA service. There is of course a deeper truth here, for the God we preach does not promise security or safety." St Matthew's is in the forefront of transformational Christianity, with an emphasis on peacemaking, inclusion (welcome for all), social justice, community life, and challenging abusive thought and behaviour that uses the name of God to justify itself. It calls itself "a progressive Anglican church with a heart for the city and an eye to the world."

Way to go St M's... though [small aside] I do hate the word 'progressive' (yes, I know, we use it on Ekklesia, too, and I belong to a blogging network with that name). It is meant to indicate openness to engagement with the world, and a questioning of reactionary approaches. Which is good. But, to many, it so easily suggests a dubious attachment to the post-19th century doctrine of 'progress' or to a particular kind of centrist political agenda. Whereas the Gospel is actually about the future God gives us beyond manipulation, and the much more radical impact that can make on our present polity as church and as a community of people engaged in the public square - if we will allow it. 'Transformative' is the alternative word I'm pitching. I'm told it isn't as 'sexy' in communications terms. Too bad, I say. Let's challenge the inherited labels.

Comment on this post: FaithInSociety

In the midst of the UK political party conference season's media blandishments, the Guardian's Simon Hoggart can be guaranteed to puncture pomposity and put the spinmeisters back on a wheel of their own making. But the columnist's mockery of Bill Clinton's reference to the African concept of ubuntu (during his recent Labour speech) suggests that he lives a very solitary existence. Or perhaps on another planet. Quoth Hoggart: "It turns out to mean 'I am, because you are.' No, I haven't a clue either. But the speech was a mighty success, certainly compared to Alan Johnson's." Que? The concept of inherent human interdependence is that difficult to grasp for the champagne-drinking commentariat? Or their dictionaries don't do U, only non-U? What is the liberal left coming to... Ah well, someone give the good man a copy of Paul E. Stroble's Reconciliation: The Ubuntu Theology of Desmond Tutu (Pilgrim Press). That'll really confuse him.

Comment on this post: FaithInSociety