Saturday, June 30, 2007
There's a big discussion in blogworld about the ethics of debate and attribution - Thinking Anglicans had this on ad hominem remarks and anonymous posters. Maggi Dawn has also given a recent example of a style of debate which seems deeply unhelpful. This isn't about limiting free speech, it's about courtesy, respect and the tools of ongoing enlightnment, surely?
Since I 'enabled' comments on FaithInSociety I've had quite a few anonymous responses to posts. I might excerpt and include/respond to a few of the (less abusive!) ones if I get a moment. But I don't post anonymously on the web myself, and I won't, as a rule, be publishing material here from anyone who doesn't include an email or link back to their own website - though I will happily keep a comment anonymous or pseudepigraphic if anyone requests that by emailing me. Hope that seems clear and fair.
As I've said before, a bit of me feels bad that I won't be able to host big debates, and that this is largely a comment rather than discussion forum. It's mainly a matter of time, from my POV. But I also value being able to publish some 'in transit' thinking without making it immediately subject to disputatious interraction... unlike some of the 'public' utterances or activities I am engaged in through Ekklesia. Some people object to that on principle, but for me it is part of the variety of communication we need. The idea that everyone is always obliged to respond can be a bit overwhelming, to say the least. It's an evolving medium.
Incidentally, in accepting me as a friend on Facebook, Maggi said we were "members of the blogosphere". Now there's a thought. Who dishes out those membership cards, eh? If I get one of those, I may be seriously spooked! No thanks, Jack Straw ;)
One last thing. I know my counter has still been chucking up those wretched ILead ads that defy your pop-up blockers. I have saved my Motigo data and switched to another service, the sdmirable Statcounter. Meanwhile, the graphic on this post has been deliberately nicked from a screensaver spam ad. So there, pop-upsters!
Friday, June 29, 2007
Knowledge is not simply a matter of external observation, scrutiny and testing. It is about participation in and relation to what we claim as 'reality', including the reflexive distance of language by which we deduce/adduce something of what it is we participate in or relate to. If the reality at issue is a 'chair', say, there is a huge body of common human experience and observation to go on. Plus there is a universe-pattern that a chair can be shown to be part of, which exists to reinforce and legitimate an agreed account of what this thing is - an account which proves usable and sustainable for our living. That is why we go on 'believing' it.
However, that is not how things work with God, since God is not an object of any kind, not reducible to any particular element of experience, naming (designation) or universal patterning. Rather, when we speak of God we are talking of the mystery that holds the universe in being, and we necessarily speak in tradition-specific ways which involve both contradiction and paradox. Any means of claiming things about God (like 'being' or 'non-being') which does not recognise this as both a pattern and a limitation for reasonable talk about 'the divine' is, in a post/modern context, in deep trouble from the outset. That is a challenge for someone like A. C. Grayling among the 'deniers' of God, and much as it is for those who make claims for God. But it largely ignored. Even in supposedly literate circles.
How we move in a different direction from the current deadlock is, it seems to me, the 'theological issue'. How can we claim to speak with credibility about the nature of God, or to claim we 'know' about God (to affirm or deny, for instance)? It's part of a project I am developing entitled God After Christendom - which will argue that, in spite of massive problems and distortions arising from the near absorption of large elements of historic Christianity into patterns of worldly domination which have often nearly extinguished its soul, the core 'traditional' elements of Christian speech and grammar turn out, surprisingly, to be key resources in helping us to have something significant and genuinely life-giving to say and do about God -- who cannot be written off as dead, but is massively libelled (and mostly by 'the religious').
In the meantime, what follows is adapted from my paper What difference does God make today?, with a couple of small changes resulting from correspondence. The joy of internet publication is that you can go on modifying the text. Hopefully (though not always) to improve it - or, as I think one should say in all modesty, make it less inadequate.
“To speak appropriately of the holy mystery that makes and heals the world, but is not the world nor any item in it, is quite beyond the [analytic] resources of language,” says Nicholas Lash. God-talk is therefore inescapably metaphorical - that is the way its aspiration to truth is necessarily formed. “It is the tragedy of Western culture to have fallen prey to the illusion (widely shared by believer and non-believer alike) that it is perfectly easy to talk about God.” [Holiness, speech and Silence]
Serious religious activity (worship and action that refuses the dominating claims of 'deities', both religious and non-religious in form) involves disciplining ourselves to avoid pinning down and labelling the Holy One - "the unfamiliar Name" (T. S. Eliot). It involves learning how to recognise that we, and all things, are, in the flow of the Christian story at least, lovingly created (gifted) into peace – and that at the end of the day, this is all we ‘know’ – for we are contingent.
To know God in this way is not to know a scientifically or philosophically determinable ‘fact’, or to be able to describe ‘frameworks of cosmic order’, but to enter a personal, communal and narrative relationship, embodied in social practice. Above all, this takes time, patience and cooperation. And it assumes the surprising conclusion of traditional Christian thought, which is that God is disclosed as God within the conditions of the material world, rightly apprehended, and not anywhere else. Esoteric knowledge of ‘another world’ is not presupposed.
To live before God, in a dignified way, is also to acknowledge our radical dependence (the condition of our mortality) without pathology. God is no tyrant, but the life-giver. To be humanly free in the presence of God – a deeper freedom than mere ‘autonomy’ – is to learn how appropriately to handle contingency and brokenness (alongside the abundant joys of life) through mutuality, belonging, listening, forgiving and attentiveness.
The outcome of this is not ‘spirituality’ – a privatised zone of consolation or esoteric ‘knowledge’ – but radical personal, social and political engagement with the pain and noise of the world in the direction of healing (holiness), conditioned by the hopefulness embodied for and with us in the liberating Word that resonates in Jesus Christ and originates in the eternally inviting silence of God.
That will have to do as an interim summary. The rest is here. [Picture: with thanks to http://33ad.blogspot.com/]
Monday, June 25, 2007
Received ideas about neutrality, ‘news values’ and the place of reporting in current events must be questioned as a result of the changing global role of the media in an age of conflict, Simon Barrow of the UK think-tank Ekklesia will suggest at a meeting in St Ethelburga's Centre, London, tomorrow night. He will ask why concrete attempts at conflict transformation (rather than just ‘resolution’) rarely feature in mainstream reporting – even though, in places like Ireland, South Africa and the Middle East, they turn out to be of crucial importance. The example of reporting on the Christian Peacemaker Teams 'kidnap in Iraq' story (pictured) will be among those featured.
The discussion on ‘Making peace headline news’ will take place at St Ethelburga's, 78 Bishopsgate, London EC2N 4AG, starting at 6.30pm on Tuesday 26 June. Attendance is open and free (suggested donation £5), but those intending to come along are asked to email the Centre here.
St Ethelburga’s is five minutes walk from both Bank and Liverpool Street stations (Zone 1). You can walk over the bridge from London Bridge Station in about 15 minutes. View the location online at Streetmap.
Sunday, June 24, 2007
“If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heart beat and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.” George Elliot.
My friend Alison Goodlad has an fine, thoughtful and moving piece up on Ekklesia (Culture and Review) on Finding at-one-ment in Middlemarch, in which she re-reads Eliot’s classic novel – and discovers that its apparently provincial and culturally-bound narrative has some powerful things to tell us about loving purpose in life, atonement and even Eucharistic living. It has been adapted from an address given at St Stephen's, Exeter, earlier this month (June 2007).
According to the estimable Sunny Hundal over on Pickled Politics, Facebook (the social networking site that's seen as cool and well tooled up, now that MySpace is creaking a bit - unless you are a musician) has significant potential for getting people to think and mobilise. It certainly is impressively constructed. Ekklesia now has a page. And on a personal note, so do I. You have to register to see them, but it's worth it. (Actually, my public interface is available. I have discovered that it is to be found here)
When you have set up your own Facebook page, which is very simple to do, the system will automatically search your email address book (if you allow it to) to discover who else you know is already on the site, so that you can add them as 'friends'. There are numerous features you can add, from a 'message wall' to books to maps, as well as various groups and causes. Not that I'm advocating relocating your life online, but I have found it a useful way to link with other media people and to look up some people with common interests.
Friday, June 22, 2007
You are invited to a discussion on Making peace headline news, on Tuesday 26 June 2007, at St Ethelburga's, 78 Bishopsgate, London EC2N 4AG, starting at 6.30pm. Ends by 8pm. All welcome. Feel free to spread the news.
"War reporting is long established, but the press often struggles to pick up on peacemaking and conflict transformation initiatives. Simon Barrow, co-director of the religious think tank Ekklesia and a journalist with 25 years experience, talks with other practitioners and interested observers and participants about how to get peace into the news in an age of conflict. Practical examples and ideas for at all who need to work in, or with, a fast-changing media environment."
Suggested donation £5 for the session. You can let St Ethelburga's know you're coming here. The Centre is five minutes walk of both Bank and Liverpool Street stations (Zone 1). You can walk over the bridge from London Bridge Station in about 15 minutes. View the location online at Streetmap.
Refugee Week is a UK-wide programme of arts, cultural and educational events that celebrate the contribution of refugees to the UK, and encourages a better understanding between communities. Refugee Week 2007 is taking place from 18 to 24 June. That is, right now.
As in 2006, there will be no specific theme for Refugee Week 2007. Rather, the week is a space of encounters between different communities and an opportunity to use more creative ways to bring refugee experiences closer to wider audiences.
Every year during Refugee Week hundreds of events are organised across the UK. Last year, there were over 450 small and large events, ranging from big music festivals and art exhibitions to political debates, film screenings, conferences, school activities, sports and community events, church and faith groups meetings, and so on.
Definitely worth supporting, and obviously a concern which is highlighted in one particular week - but actually vital for the other 51 in the year.
Thursday, June 21, 2007
Saturday, June 16, 2007
Since I co-run a think tank (and in the process write, comment, speak and occasionally broadcast on issues of religion in society), some people readily assume that I must "enjoy the cut and thrust of debate". Well, I don't mind a good argument, and I'm happy to participate in serious (and enjoyable) conversation about things that matter to me and others. But actually, much of the bruhaha about religion right now - both from 'religious' and 'non-religious' sources - strikes me as bad (rather than good) argument, and a great deal of it is faintly depressing... not because of the validity or otherwise of what is being said, but because of the way it proceeds.
The level of anger, disrespect and sheer inattention to the fabric of argument and what makes people different can be truly numbing. Remarking on the trail of insults that invariably follows any attempt to talk about religion in any register whatsover on The Guardian Comment-is-Free (hmmnn, haven't written anything in my column on there for a bit), a friend of mine, no believer herself, remarked: "Well, any idea that if you call yourself a rationalist you must be rational looks to me to be just as incredible as the idea that if you call yourself religious it makes you spiritual. The evidence suggests it is often otherwise."
It was that thought (thanks, Jane), together with some reflections earlier on this blog, that lead me to write my latest Ekklesia column, Religion, anti-religion and the perils of being right.
That and the encouraging advent of The O Project, which "champions the contributions that humanists and other atheists make to wider society and encourages good relations between atheists and religious people." If they'll forgive me, I say "amen" to that, and not just because they are kind enough to quote me.
It is a true sign of humanism (which can be both a religious and non-religious virtue, and which doesn't, incidentally, have to sink into anthropomorphism or speciesism) that we value the humanity of those we disagree with above the actual disagreement -- either because we believe that humanity is in the end all we've got, or, in my case, because we see the gift that makes us human as precisely that (a gift, and therefore a pointer to a 'giving' that transcends our capacity to imprison gifts in networks of assertion and reinforcing interest).
Reason (the ability to recognise and act on the coherence that holds our living and thinking together), like faith (which is essentially trusting that 'the good' is neither ephemeral nor pointless - and therefore to be lived), is a distinctly human capacity. That means it proceeds not just by abstract rational construction, but by feeling, experience, relationship, instinct, embodiment and sensate response. To "be rational" is to learn, in conversation with others, to sustain the relationship between all these things -- not to reject or suppress one at the expense of the other. And for that you need people who are different to you, who see things at variance, and who can point you to new experiences, analyses and possibilities.
That's what makes a good argument - one that enhances the good, rather than one which ensures 'victory'. Sadly, this isn't what is widely perceived as making "a good story" in the media. For that you need warring parties asserting incommensurable claims, apparently. So, lo and behold, that's what you get! The bridge-builders are often written out of the script or accused of being vacillating or "over-complicated". To which the only response should be: tough, you destroy and see where that gets you (and the rest of us). We'll go on building, thank you.
It's called hope. And if you are a Christian it resides in the fact that the Word comes to us through flesh, not stone.
[See also: John Milbank, “Can a Gift Be Given? Prolegomena To a Future Trinitarian Metaphysic,” Modern Theology 11, January 1995. Picture: Goya's The Sleep of Reason]
Friday, June 15, 2007
On an entirely theologically and socially void point, there's something about the term "rock-and-roll vicar" which brings a deep chill to my spine. And not in a good way. So when the TV fantasy-property show A Place In The Sun (just lurking in the background while I do some Important Things - honest!) used that very term to introduce one of today's house hunters, there was only one thing I could do... anticipate some delicious car-crash telly. This, of course, is unfair and unworthy of me. And to give "parish priest and rock musician Andrew Harding and his wife Leanne" who "are looking for a heavenly retreat in Western Crete" (latest7) their due, he seems a nice bloke. Indeed he's rather archetypally vicary, that tell-tale earring aside. Plus he almost certainly cringed at the intro, too, and he thankfully spoke not once of "divine guidance" or "gettin' dahn wiv da posse" (yeah, yeah, cod rap not r&r). So if The Village Green Preservation Society can be the result of an, um, "credible popular music combo", why not Hoo St Werburgh Parish Church, I ask? Let's, like, totally rockit, dudes.
AAAGHHH... A Place In The Sun is over (phew), but there's a titanic toilet roll bust-up just starting on Big Brother. I mean, Fateh and Hamas? Get real, this is serious. Pampered bottoms are at stake.
Hang on, who said modern life is rubbish? Blur, if I recall correctly... But the best comment on BB has to be Germaine Greer's. "People say that Big Brother is the end of civilisation as we know it. Wrong. It is civilization as we know it." Checkit.
Update: they're onto a nuclear-sized "whose f*****g bananas?" crisis now (see pic). Somebody call the UN!
Thursday, June 14, 2007
The recent Church of England strop over Sony using part of Manchester Cathedral as a backdrop to the game Resistance: Fall of Man echoes back to Canterbury Cathedral's wrangle with Koch over one called War on Terror exactly a year ago. My London housemate Mark Clapham, a good urban atheist, has written an eminently sensible GI.biz piece to add some 'insider' context. You can find his article ('Reality Bites') here. He points out that even Tony Blair has now felt the need to chip in on the debate, adding: "Doesn't he have packing to do?"
Mark observes: Regardless of the legal merits of the case, discussed widely on this site as well as legal blogs, the Church's position is far from incomprehensible. A church is, after all, a place of peace, and it is understandable that the sight of such a building as an arena for a gun battle - no matter how fantastical - might cause offence, especially considering problems with gun crime in the city.
I suppose you could say that Ekklesia's response (Church on the wrong track in suing Sony over war-game, says lawyer - scan to the end) has been a little less sympathetic. The Established Church frequently lauds its links to military endeavour. Its buildings are, as I pointed out in my comment, stuffed full of insignia and memorials. I've no objection to that. It's part of history and it serves as a useful reminder of the traumas and tragedies that are part of all of us, in different ways. But it also reminds us that the Church has, on many occasions, wrapped itself in the flag, sought the comfort of arms, and blessed all kinds of dubious weaponised conflicts. It is far from innocent either of organised violence or its imagistic perpetuation. When striking a righteous pose, you'd think it might just be a bit mindful of this. But that connection just doesn't seem to occur. Why not?
The answer, partly, is the overwhelming 'Christendom mindset' (the assumption that what the church wants and values is what everyone else should be made to want and value). This entices church leaders to reach immediately for their high horses, dictats and lawyers, it seems. The tenor grates with many people, myself included. When the Canterbury row surfaced (May 2006) Ekklesia did some radio and newspaper comment, having written to the Dean and Chapter suggesting that a more positive media strategy could be pursued - in everyone's interest. Emphasise the positive: use the 'Warrior Chapel' for an exhibition on conflict mediation/transformation, invite the games company to support it (or make it refuse to do so); try an approach which is a bit more imaginative and community-focussed rather than instantly confrontational. We got a note saying they'd get back to us. They never did, and the case itself was dropped. Little has been learned, apparently.
From a strictly legal viewpoint, it's hard to see that the Cathedral and the Church are going to get very far with Sony. That isn't to say that there aren't interesting and even significant issues involved; just that the balance of forces in an adversarial process will struggle to surface them constructively. Moreover, rather than merely trying to 'defend' its symbols, buildings, texts and trdaitions as 'intellectual property' (a commodity to be fought over), might the Church not be better seeking to develop those resources positively as cultural and spiritual resources for the twenty-first century?
To put it another way: The Gospel message is about the power of love subverting the love of power. I'm not clear how throwing legal threats around is designed to demonstate this. And they're darned expensive. On the other hand, try to scrounge a few quid from church institutions for peacebuilding initiatives in Somalia (let's say), and you'll find "sorry, there's just no money". What was it Jesus banged on about? "Where your treasure is, there too is your heart". Hmnnn...
Mark Clapham (whose roll back... and mix blog is here) also draws an interesting distinction about the Sony game here. "This is fantasy games violence, heroic rather than criminal." Good point. And one which nods in the direction of 'just' rather than 'unjust' violence, upon which the Church pinned its doctrine in defence of the Christian Empire it became identified with. But of course 'heroic' killing is much more dangerous than the criminal kind, because it enshrines what theologian Walter Wink calls "the myth of redemptive violence" - the idea that slaughter aimed at making people good (or at least bad and dead) is normative, efficacious and morally fruitful. That's the unhelpful - and in many cases disastrous - lie that human beings have been telling themselves, with sanction from both religious and non-religious ideologies, since ancient Babylonian times.
Wink's own view is that TV and gaming simply institutionalises this myth as entertainment. To an extent that's obviously true. But it's also in danger of becoming a rather two-dimensional argument. Fantasy violence has cathartic properties too, and learning to distinguish between imagination and reality (though the two can never be separated) is a vital part of learning how to think and behave responsibly. Philosopher and intellectual guerilla Jean Baudrillard famously stirred the hyperreal plot by suggesting that, in a sense, the first Gulf War "didn't happen", because most of it was actually played out as a real-time computer game. And wouldn't it be better, he added, if we abandoned actual killing and handled all conflict 'virtually'?
It's a tantalising thought that begs a lot of further questions. Violence and revenge are primal urges built into our evolutionary survival mechanisms. Civilization is about learning to reframe and re-channel (rather than simply deny or suppress) them. That's why conflict transformation rather than "resolution" is what is needed. And why the Christian tradition speaks of 'redemption' (literally re-deeming things) as a relational process of moving from anomie to connectedness. Not banning things. (The Decalogue is a description of the commitments that make a moral community possible, not an arbitrary set of prescriptions to be imposed).
So... reality and fantasy does, indeed, bite. And in ways which are more interesting and challenging than a slightly naff spitting match between C of E Plc and an entertainment giant.
Don't play the game, people. Change it.
Also on Ekklesia: Canterbury Cathedral invited to turn tables on war games (29/05/06); Canterbury Cathedral urged to turn wargame row into peace pledge 26/05/06; Religion not solely to blame for global conflict, says WCC chief (08/07/07).
Tuesday, June 12, 2007
Many early Christians were among the first to be given the honour of being called 'atheists' - because they refused to bow the knee to the Roman pantheon. What they disavowed was not the life-changing taste of unconditional love they had met in the community of Christ (a love so manipulation-free that they realised that it went beyond all human bargaining). Rather, they rejected attempts to reduce the gift/giver/giving of this love - the God beyond 'gods' - to 'religion', the kind of packaged spiritual system which proves itself amenable to bolstering self-serving political ambitions. Modern disbelief, on the other hand, seeks to fight superstition by refusing any notion of transcendent value, believing such a notion to be nothing more than unprovable metaphysical speculation.
Sunday, June 10, 2007
"Mainline theology needs to understand [both] how we are part of the problem and how resistance can be formed. The primary issue is not first of all advocacy, in the form of doing things for others in ways that leave the self intact, but self-critique." [Joerg Rieger, God and the Excluded: Visions and Blindspots in Contemporary Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), pp. 190f.]
Karl Marx once said that the premise of all criticism is the criticism of religion. This was, in its own way, a supreme compliment, because although he disavowed its transcendentalism (which he wrongly mistook for nothing more than philosophical and political idealism), Marx recognised the power of "religious" language and sentiment to deal in hopes and possibilities which the grinding wheels of production and consumption otherwise drain out of people. In the end he substituted a myth about history and a messianic class for religious eschatology, living up to his reputation as the last (and least obviously theological!) of the great Hebrew prophets.
Of course it is no more or less meaningful to talk of "religion" in the abstract than it is to talk of "humanity" in the abstract. People are not one-size-fits-all. They only come in gendered, cultured and socialised forms - in different, sometimes contradictory shapes and sizes, that is. So it is also with religion - a fact which those who try to sweep it all away with a cavalier hand and an indiscriminating mind fail (or refuse) to notice.
It is unavoidable, then, that Riegler is talking here, in the first instance, not about "religion" but about Christian and Hebrew theology - where (though you might not know it from the behaviour of many of their adherents) self-critique is, in both traditions, constituitive of any capacity they have for meaningful speech and action. It isn't an add-on, after-thought or optional extra.
For example, there is no Christianity which can properly avoid its own confrontation with the Cross, the place where our human and religious propensities to demand sacrifice, to create systems that kill, and to legitimate injustice are exposed to the searing and unanswerable criticism of the innocent victim - the one who has to be killed becuase his existence exposes the non-necessity of such regimes.
The cross is also the place where the perpetuators of the cycle of violence are undone by a response which is truly radical precisely because (at great cost) it refuses to perpetuate the core problem: "Forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing...". By contrast, to strike back is to "curse the power [at night], and live by it by day."
In the midst of its internal warring and its external anxieties about cultures which are less well disposed to it, organised Christianity urgently needs to re-capture that sense of theological self-critique. Criticism of its own failure to live truthfully in the light of unconditional love should become the premise of any criticism it engages in the wider culture. Not out of masochism (as some will claim), but out of reflexivity and faithfulness.
At which point the same question also reaches out to Muslims, to humanists, to those of many faiths, no-faith and anti-faith. Where is the self-criticism intrinsic to your patterns of thought and behaviour which enable them to acknowledge betrayal and victimisation - and not just to see betrayal and victimisation as someone else's fault? This is the truly redemptive question of the darkened imagination.
Saturday, June 09, 2007
Has Ekklesia sold out to a global conglomerate to raise a few more bucks? We certainly hope not. And you can still buy books from Metanoia (our peace, justice and theology online bookstore) and from Eden (a general bookstore where our affiliate deal puts cash back into the work we support). In fact I'd urge you to do so. But for more info on how and why we have started to allow Amazon links on our pages too, see here: Buying books helps to fund the quest for peace with justice.
Your comments really would be welcome. Write to me on this email rather than the one on this blog (which is largely a spam-blocker, though I do check occasonally). Promoting alternatives and surviving with some ethics in the financal jungle isn't easy. But we're trying. We value the help and critical support of those who use and contribute to Ekklesia's work.
Meanwhile, happy reading ;)
Oh, yes: the logo/artwork here ['Cross into Dove'] belongs to our friends at the London Mennonite Centre, who run Metanoia Books. It was originally an exquisite piece of fine art by Priscilla Trenchard, who now lives in the US, I believe, with husband Lynn Failing and at least one child, Charlotte. They're wonderful people who I have sadly lost contact with. And, surprisingly, Google hasn't helped on this one. So if they (or anyone who knows them) reads this, hopefully the link can be re-established. That would be terrific.
Incidentally, I recall that Priscilla wasn't hugely thrilled that the design had been adapted as a logo, though she understood why. And it is undoubtedly the case that the subtlety, scale and detail of her work is somewhat smudged by all-purpose and low-res versions in different sizes. Another "wise as serpents, gentle as doves" challenge in the advertising viz-a-vis truth'n'beauty arena, huh? But I can think of few images which convey the integral character of peacemaking to the Gospel than this one. It has inspired many, both within and without the Christian community. If you use or reference it please don't forget to credit and link LMC.
Sunday, June 03, 2007
Three ways to make sense of one God (Ekklesia). To some the ancient and central doctrine of the Trinity looks to be modern Christianity's intellectual achilles heel in a rationalistic age, but Simon Barrow argues that rightly understood it points to the coherence of God-talk as well as the challenges the Gospel poses.