Tuesday, July 31, 2007


How will Gordon Brown keep the faith? (Ekklesia).

The new British Prime Minister will be less overt in his faith agenda and less establishment in his church instincts, suggests Simon Barrow. But religion and public life will remain hot political issues.

Monday, July 30, 2007


'Reading Harry Potter too religiously' - Ekklesia culture and review section.

Religiously constructed rows over sorcery, metaphor and meaning in Harry Potter are hardly new, as Simon Barrow has personal reason to know. He suggests we all chill out and finding meaning not menace in the narrative. (Which he probably won't read, by the way).

She is a guide and provocateur for atheists and Christians, for revolutionaries, recidivists, romantics, and realists; for religious and non-religious; for philosophers, factory workers, sociologists, cooks and truck drivers. “In France”, declared the New York Times, “she is ranked with Pascal by some, condemned as a dangerous heretic by others, and recognised as a genius by all.”

For Andre Gide she is “the best spiritual writer of the twentieth century.” And T. S. Eliot, whose conservative political and ecclesial outlook was in many respects the opposite of hers, concluded: “We must simply expose ourselves to the personality of a woman of genius, or a kind of genius akin to that of the saints.

Truly, Simone Weil (1909-1943) has a unique voice which needs to be heard again in the twenty-first century – a supposedly ‘post ideological’ era in which views and ideas are hardening in spite of (or perhaps because of) cultural diversity, spiritual confusion, secular angst and social fragmentation.

Weil was, in many respects, a disturbed person who lived life in fragments. Yet there is an unsettling wholeness to her vision which offers connectedness without uniformity, spirit without dualism, rebellion without inhumanity, nourishment without gluttony, and God without illusion.

Perhaps the best place to start with her work is Gravity and Grace, Simone Weil’s first ever publication. This is now available from Routledge in an edition which includes not just a foreword by friend, interlocutor and interpreter Gustave Thibon, but also a postscript he wrote in 1990 and which was published in English for the first time in an edition re-issued in 1999.

Stephen Plant, who I had the pleasure of working with through the international committee of Churches Together in Britain and Ireland, has written a short introduction to Simone Weil (as well as one of my other lode stars, Dietrich Bonhoeffer) – one which is both appreciative and honest.

Reading Weil will always leave you unsettled at one level. But also inspired. It will not leave you unchanged. She is an eccentric in the technical (rather than purely pejorative) sense of the word: off-centre - when 'centre' is understood to mean "dominant ideas and ways of life".

“Our life is impossibility, absurdity. Everything we want contradicts the conditions or consequences attached to it. Every affirmation we put forward involves a contradictory affirmation. All our feelings are mixed up with their opposites. It is because we are a contradiction – being creatures – being godly and infinitely other than God… Impossibility is the door of that which is beyond nature. We can but knock at it. It is someone other who opens.”

[translation by the author – for Mary Metzler]

Sunday, July 29, 2007


“Hope is believing in spite of the evidence, and watching the evidence change.” (Jim Wallis)

“ 'Til everything's right, we ain’t here no more” (Jake Krieder, quoted by Mary Metzler - describing it as a 'Zen Mennonite' kind of statement!)

“History belongs to the intercessors, who invoke the future into being” (Walter Wink)

“We do well to remember that we are human beings, not just human doings” (Eric Fromm)

"It takes no courage to be an optimist, but it takes a great deal of courage to have hope" (Jonathan Sacks - thanks to Alison Goodlad for this one, from The Dignity Of Difference. See also his To Heal A Fractured World)

Antonio Gramsci, for whom I have great respect, is famous for commending an attitude to life which he summed up as “pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will.” This sparked an exchange between the German humanist-Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch (whose classic Der Princip Hoffnung, 'The Principle of Hope', was later translated into English by my friend Stephen Plaice) and the political theologian Jurgen Moltmann (best known for his A Theology of Hope). They agreed that ‘hope’ and ‘optimism’ are not the same thing.

At least as a cultural phenomenon, optimism is the haphazard trust in the idea that things will somehow work out. Hope, on the other hand, is an active commitment to seek out and practice the good, the just and the true in situations of seemingly intractable wrong, injustice and falsehood – knowing that to succumb to an emaciated version of ‘reality’ is to decide in favour of non-change and to distort ‘realism’.

Whereas the world is, we discover as we explore it, a process of inexorable change, encapsulating both growth and decay, renewal and degradation, life and death. Similarly, John Macmurray is right to claim that Descartes would have been nearer the truth to say “We act, therefore we are” instead of “I think therefore I am”.

In this context, to believe in the necessity of God is not to posit some ‘supernatural addition’ to the world, but to recognise in the world process, where God is given in excess or not at all, that what is essential stasis (hatred, killing, intellectual rigidity, social fixity) cannot have the final word. For such things have no word to speak, only words to deny.

God is not “finished being”, such as we are, or rather imagine ourselves to be. Instead, God is better thought of as endless potentiality ranged against the kind of human arrogance that improbably imagines it has adequate grounds, in the frame of this life, to decide what the full-stop is and where it comes. In that realisation resides true hope.

The kind of atheist that the later Jacques Derrida was, and the kind of Christian believer I seek to be, are united in this conviction about “refusing the full-stop”. The kind of believer that Jerry Falwell was, and the kind of atheist that Richard Dawkins is, seem to have decided otherwise, on the grounds of two incompatible certainties which I find equally non-compelling.

They are, I recognise, options. Just not ones I find either rational or faithful. [Picture: Jurgen Moltmann]

Saturday, July 28, 2007


This from former Archbishop of York Dr John Habgood, reviewing an excellent new collection of essays for the Times Literary Supplement - Duncan Dormor and Jeremy Morris, editors, An Acceptable Sacrifice? Homosexuality and the Church, SPCK Publishing. p/b, 190pp., £12.99.

The Bible is frequently claimed to be unequivocal in its condemnation of homosexuality. While there are texts which might at first sight give the claim some credibility, it is clear from reading them in context that they are not actually answering the kind of questions which today’s protagonists on both sides want to ask. There are many twenty-first-century questions which could not even be asked in biblical times, because the concepts which underlie them, that of homosexual orientation for instance, did not then exist. There is also an important sense in which the Bible is not a book of answers at all. It is a description of, and invitation to enter into, a historical process through which, it is claimed, the nature of God has been progressively revealed. Furthermore, the key ethical insight which forms the culmination of the entire story is the revelation of God as love. To extract a number of texts purporting to be about homosexuality, and to condemn a whole group of people for a personality trait which is not of their making, may look at first sight like faithfulness to the biblical text. In reality it is not to treat the Bible seriously, through failing to take account of its ultimate message about the sovereignty of love and the process by which this came to be.

That such formerly mainstream (and, frankly, pretty conservative) views of Scripture are now being viewed as wild radicalism in some sections of the Anglican Communion and elsewhere, shows just how far things have moved in recent theological debate - and how entrenched current antagonisms are. An Acceptable Sacrifice? suggests some constructive ways forward beyond the unedifying shouting match we now have. As David Paisley observes: "Much of the content is framed as a question or situation to be explored, rather than territory to be defended. That's refreshing in its own right."

Friday, July 27, 2007


At this year’s WOMAD world music festival (27-29 July 2007) UK-based international development agency Christian Aid is asking visitors to join its 'Climate Changed' campaign as they listen to acts from developing countries which are struggling to adapt to the devastating effects of climate change.

Nazmul Chowdhury from Practical Action in Bangladesh, said: "Forget about making poverty history. Climate change will make poverty permanent."

More information here. [Picture: Cut The Carbon walk laces]

Thursday, July 26, 2007


"Art is a birth, and you can't go to a teacher and find out how to be born... you have to struggle... until that image, the one that comes out of your need to create, emerges." ~ Malcah Zeldis, 1978.

"You don't make it with your hands. You form it with your hands. You make it with your mind." ~ Edgar Tolson, 1971.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007


Someone has asked me how my encouragement of putative bloggers was going. Well, I sent the link to four people (three female, out of interest). So far it has been one 'sorry, no', two heavily qualified 'maybes' and one yet-to-reply. I'm not giving away any secrets, but let's just say that my theory about how blogging is predominantly gendered are being borne out. But of course, there are people I have inexcusably overlooked; who I really would have sent it to if I had thought. (That's the danger of advertising your intentions. Everyone can see you goof.) Like Doug Hynd, from the Anabaptist Association of New Zealand and Australia, for sure. He has recently started Subversive Voices. I'm about to add it to my roll.

"Give beer to those who are perishing, wine to those who are in anguish; let them drink and forget their poverty and remember their misery no more. Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute." Proverbs 31.6-8.

(Thanks to Sarah Hill for mining this delightful take on human dignity, a good bit of imbibing and the search for social justice).

Saturday, July 21, 2007


This from an interesting sermon on the Good Samaritan by Bishop Gene Robinson of New Hampshire. About whom many people only know that he is gay, it seems. Hopefully Rowan Williams knows a bit more now. But he still won't invite him to the Lambeth Conference 2008.

A little while ago, in the only time that the Archbishop of Canterbury ever deigned to see me, we were having a little "chat", and at one point in our conversation, he was explaining to me that, actually what The Episcopal Church should have done prior to electing and consecrating me, was that we should have figured all this out theologically and intellectually... We should have come to a common mind, and then passed canons and and then done this thing. And I said to him with as much respect as I could, "Your Grace, it seems to me that all of the great steps that [the Church] has taken, have been as a result of our doing the right thing, and only then, "thinking" our way to what we did. It's not the other way around. I mean, if we had waited for instance in this country for everyone to have been on the same page about civil rights, there would still be separate drinking fountains, wouldn't there? And if we had waited until women were valued as equal and full members of society and the human race, for goodness sakes, all of that discrimination would still exist."

[Photo: Bishop Gene Robinson]. Thanks to The Religious Left for this snippet.

In his fine book ‘Search for Reality in Religion’ (1965, re-issued 1984), which I have been re-reading recently, the personalist Quaker philosopher John Macmurray writes: “[Removing] for ever the fear of death… is a tremendous gain in reality; for until we reach it – however we reach it – we cannot see our life as it really is, and so cannot live it as we should.”

He continues: “The fear of death is the symbol in us of all death; and fear is destructive of reality. It is true that one can gain this familiarity with death and use it falsely. We can say, as so many of my contemporaries did after the war, 'Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.’ But it may well lead us to the opposite conclusion. We may feel that life is precious because it is short; and because it may end at any moment we must live so that every day would be a good day to die in, if death should come. Without this knowledge of death… there can be no real knowledge of life and so no discovery of the reality of religion.”

I have written a longer piece for Ekklesia which explores this theme in relation to religious violence and the Gospel. It is called Re-evangelizing the religion of death.

Incidentally, Macmurray - a non-believer and soldier who became a Christian, Quaker and pacifist - was one of the finest philosophers of his generation. He was also a committed democratic socialist. Ironic, some would say, that Tony Blair cites him as a formative influence, along with the equally unlikely (from a Blairite perspective) radical Anglican Catholic, Kenneth Leech. (You there, Ken?).

The person who pointed me in the direction of Macmurray, incidentally, was the late Alan Ecclestone, dissident priest and writer on prayer. A wonderful man. See Tim Gorringe's tribute and exposition of his life. [Pic: John Macmurray, (c) the JM Fellowship]

Friday, July 20, 2007


An absolutely wonderful poem by Niyi Osundare [note that this is (c) the author, with grateful acknowledgement]. From Selected Poems 1992, a verse which is appearing on London underground trains. Talk about an oasis in the desert...

I sing of Change

I sing of the beauty of Athens
Without its slaves

Of a world free of kings and queens
And other remnants of an arbitrary past

Of earth
With no sharp north
Or deep south

Without blind curtains
Or iron walls

Of the end of warlords and armourers
And prisons of hate and fear

Of deserts
Treeing and fruiting
After quickening rains

Of the sun
Radiating ignorance
And stars informing
Nights of unknowing

I sing of a world re-shaped.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007


There is a powerful, personal piece from my valued friend Deirdre Good on Ekklesia (with acknowledgments to the excellent Episcopal Cafe), about suffering, God, blame, prejudice and the difficult need to let go of our desire to be 'in control' - both rationally and spiritually.

Stuff happens. Accidents. Mental illness. Death. Throughout human history, people have asked "Why?" To ask "why" is to presume that stuff happens for a reason, that behind events lie causes we can discover. It's a question from a privileged perspective. It suggests human omniscience...

Jesus' disciples, seeing a person blind from birth and wanting an explanation for his condition, asked, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" Jesus' reply shatters the snare of looking at illness as cause and effect: "It's not that this one sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be manifest in him." Stuff happens, Jesus says. There's not necessarily a reason for it. Put the emphasis elsewhere. It's not what happens but what you do with what happens that matters.

See the full piece here.

The same theme from St John is picked up in Rowan Williams' powerful and arresting post 9/11 reflection, Writing in the Dust (Hodders, 2001). It's a small essay (about 8,000 words) which merits re-reading in today's continuingly fearful climate. It connects the 'big issues' in life with those small human gestures, attititudes and responses which count more than we can ever know. [Pic: The Way of Suffering, (c) the Gandy Gallery]

Tuesday, July 17, 2007


There are a couple of people out there who faithfully correspond with me and often make my day with the things they say: wise, funny, insightful or just very, very human... in the best sense of that term. (The guy who was vile to a shop assistant yesterday was also being human, but in a less helpful mode). Anyway, when I read my friends' e-pistles, I often think, "I wish so-and-so could see that!" Of such things are blogs made. Well, the ones I bother with, anyway. But the people who have the best things to say are often the most nervous, diffident or unsure about actually doing so. Unlike those of us with unblessed assurance. So I'm going to post (below) my virtual advice to someone on the verge of possibly, maybe (who knows?) being tempted into the blogosphere - which Maggi Dawn tells me I am already a member of. And I trust her. She also has a good, first-base definition of blogging: "thinking out loud" about life as it is from where it comes to you.

I shall now email this link to the people concerned so they know it's them. (If it's not you, please don't be offended. I'm a bit absent-minded, as well as being a rubbish correspondent.)

You really should do a blog. In my humble opinion. You write very well, and it is a good way to develop thoughts which others will bless you for (and, given how you are, only curse you for if they are bitter and twisted - which is not your issue or responsibility). Of course it goes without saying that cyberspace is full of ego and nonsense. But there is real spiritual enrichment out there, too. Plus genuine laughter and insight. And we sorely need more of that. The thing is, if you are sharing thoughts and feelings with friends in correspondence and they tell you (like I am right now) that what you say is helpful.... well why not make this available a little more widely - or some of it, anyway? People often say "it seems a bit egocentric to have a blog". True. But it could also be selfish not having one, by the same token. Things are a little more complicated (and a lot easier!) than we sometimes think. Even Buddha non-exists in cyber.

I stress that 'some of it', however. Because I think the contemporary trend to evacuate the vulnerability of the private into a welter of self-justifying public rhetoric (and surface-surfing neuroses) is a disturbing one. We are all threatened by the aloneness that is part of the human condition - and which is the only way we come into and go out of this world. In the cyber-age it is easy to expunge this, to mask it, or to project it onto others without realising. A blog can also be a way of negotiating that personal challenge, interestingly. Not an unimportant task, since much of the shittiness of the world is about people being unable to negotiate their boundaries or do anything other than punish others for their own fear and (or of) failure. This is a chance to turn that stuff into a positive, and to release the creativity and hopefulness which is also often denied, dear friend.

But I'm getting too heavy. None of this means that this there isn't a place for living in the sheer playfulness of the moment. or the ecstasy of the fleeting. Rowan Williams has said that prayer is wasting time with God. Go waste, profligately. Likewise, some of the silliness of the web is just fab. And I greatly admired Davina Macall's wry comment when being interviewed on TV about
Big Brother: "The thing with me is that there really aren't that many hidden depths - but there are still loads of still-to-be explored superficialities!" I'm quoting from memory... but going around thinking you need to get points for being 'deep' is the most pathetic thing of all.

As with blogs, one of the reasons
I like Facebook (apart from the fact that, it seems, I'm basically a cyberslut) is the fact that you get to see the daft or trivial side of some "serious" people. And vice versa. This is what we rightly call their "human" dimension - since to be human is inherently daft, messy, glorious and weighty: all at the same time. And the blogosphere can hold those together in ways that other media lack. What Simone Weil calls gravity and grace. Though she struggled to reverse those two.

Anyway, if you did decide to dip your toe into blogworld I would happily recommend and link yours to other people I love, enjoy and value. And remember, it doesn't have to be a chore. You can decide to blog regularly (like my friend
Johan Maurer's excellent 'Thursday commentaries') You can work it into your routine (like I do, though of 'routine' there is not nearly enough), or you can use it as an occasional cipher and not feel any responsibility for regularity - or lack of it. Not caring too much is an importnat and learnable skill. Blogging is about not being a sausage. Except when you need to be. Or you're a weary pilgrim. Above all, have fun - grow - share - laugh... and discover. Something like that. OK, off for a cuppa. Hope I haven't put you off. Just write the darned thing, OK?!

Now, what was I supposed to be doing? Ah yes...

PS. When I got my first laptop, Carla J Roth - who I have the immense good fortune to be married to - tellingly observed: "Darling, that's marvellous - you never need have another unpublished thought again!" Though I think she borrowed it from Joe Orton, or someone equally droll... I only mention this because she will hate me mentioning it (though not too much). And because she doesn't read this stuff. Do you, dear?

PPS. None of this means that you couldn't be doing something far more useful with your life. But it sure beats shopping.

PPPS. No, of course, I'm not saying that private correspondence should give way to blogging. Heaven forfend! But it's not a zero-sum game. Plus the public can be more personal and the personal more public than we sometimes realise... Both/and. Yes.

Both those tempted to heroic despair and those tempted to denial in the face of the world's multiple lesions, which Weil embraced with frightening intensity...

"We must not seek the void, for it would be tempting God if we counted on supernatural bread to fill it. We must not run away from it either." Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace, p 23.

Note to a friend: Do you know Simone Weil? I'm as big a fan of hers as I am of Bonhoeffer. She was way off kilter... the boundary between madness and genius, hope and despair. (The place where those of us who are not trhere should not pretend to be. Which is what she is saying here, I think.)

Monday, July 16, 2007


"As human beings, we understand the world through simile, analogy, metaphor, narrative and, sometimes, claymation." - Bruce Mason.

(Thanks to Steven Sullivan for this gem, which has been virally marketed through his email signature file for some time, and which comes from a discussion on post-modernism and science on Pharyngula. Not a notably balanced, useful or informed one, admittedly - at least on the philosophy 'side'. But Dr Mason deserves to be canonised for this one... in the literary sense.)

Saturday, July 14, 2007


Gordon Brown, artfully manoeuvred into Downing Street, will have little room to operate in for his global social justice agenda. But what tiny space there is will be created by the power of imagination and the pressure for change coming from below. Look at the example of Northern Ireland. And global warming, for that matter. There's miles to go, but we wouldn't be anywhere without the influence of civil society and the mobilisation of cyber-influence.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007


It is a sad reality that some of the greatest platitudes come out of the mouths of enthusiastic believers, while it is the sceptics who (more encouragingly) get closer to theological wisdom. Correspondingly, the crisis of Christendom - an ecclesial domination system whose interests have often obscured the gospel - has been well understood by a thoughtful minority from Kierkegaard onwards. But not usually by those most enmeshed in church polity. Combining those two thoughts, here is the late English composer Sir Michael Tippett (of whose music and passionate free-flowing artistic humanism I am a devotee), hitting the nail on the head. From among his disparate writings collected in The Age of Aquarius, I believe. Though it might have been Music of the Angels.

"I have .. not the slightest idea where healing will come [from] because the moment of complete dereliction for the Christian civilization has probably not been reached and so the moment of God's voice from the whirlwind has not come. Though perhaps the whirlwind has come! And that is the only kernel of truth I see - that God will be found in the refuse bin as of old - the stone that has been thrown away."

I know I have quoted that before, but it keeps coming back to me with great force. Incidentally, my recently revived and rather eclectic music blog is here. Something to keep life balanced and connected - music, that is. Not necessarily blogging ;)

Sunday, July 08, 2007


There's a really interesting and important piece in the International Herald Tribune, Only traditional Islam can do it, by Phillip Blond a senior lecturer in philosophy and religion at the University of Cumbria (also an established Radical Orthodoxy luminary) and Adrian Pabst, lecturer in theology at the University of Nottingham.

What they are essentially arguing for is a strongly tradition-rooted resistance, from among Muslims, to the legitimation of terror within present, politicized Islam. Contemporary Islamic fundamentalism is, they point out, modern and heretical rather than 'traditional' - contrary to the mistaken assumptions of many commentators and a superficial reporting culture. (I think it's inevitably more cloudy than that, but in the final analysis they are right.) So, they write, "given that we are losing the battle of hearts and minds, we would be well advised to chart a different path. By encouraging an Islamic renaissance and reviving traditions that the fundamentalists have so violently suppressed, Muslim youth might be diverted from their present course." By contrast, trying to make Islam less Muslim (as if it was all corrupt, and non-religious modernity is all benign) is unworkable and counter-productive. Read it all here.

This is clearly related to the current news issue of who gets to be imams, how they are formed and equipped, and where they come from. That has actually been a Muslim (and inter-faith) concern for many, many years. And those like Philip Lewis in Bradford, and others, who have tried to get it recognised have often been ignored or misunderstood. So good on the BBC for finally getting there, courtesy of the University of Chester. But the media and government are only just coming up to speed with these things - and they still have no idea about how behind they remain and how much they don't know. Witness, in contrast to Blond and Pabst, Robert Piggott's simplistic meme-transmission that imams just need to be more modern and less foreign if they are to be any good. In other contexts this would be seen as deeply patronising and even racist, and not without warrant.

So I'm essentially in agreement with Blond and Pabst, I think. What will stop Muslims, Christians and other religionists (as well as humanists, atheists and non-believers) from developing into bigots, murderers and haters is not trying to tell them that they must become less Christian or Muslim (say) if they are to be civilized "like us". It is the recovery of deep traditions of compassion within each of these ways of believing, becoming and behaving.

I am really only qualified to talk about Christian faith here, which I am personally convinced offers a vital path to transformation and change - in spite of the distortions and crimes that have often been committed in its name. But the liberating message of the Gospel can only be surfaced by simultaneously identifying and combating the many corruptions of that message theologically (at the core of its intellectual and spiritual imagination). This requires active communities committed to 'the other way' which is, we will discover as we walk it, the way of Jesus in his filial relation to God and others; a way which has been obscured by numerous attempts to co-opt a Christ figure into the designs of imperial religion and the religion of imperialism.

Here I probably have a bit of a different emphasis to my RO friends. It seems to me that their narrative is so over-determined by the "tradition is good, modernity is bad" paradigm, that it is in danger of becoming yet another kind of Romanticism (with a huge Catholic cloak). That is, either a plea by an elite to let them civilize others, or a cosy smoothing of tradition and a dismissive abrasion of the contemporary. I don't think that's quite what they intend, but the presenting rhetoric moves in that direction.

According to St Matthew, Jesus spoke a more interesting, realistic and paradoxical truth about bringing things old and new out of the storehouse. But aren't "new things", by definition, found outside storehouses? Yes and no. It is the courage of deep convictions (ones that can't simply be dreamt up out-of-the-blue by heroic individuals) which enables us to embrace the best of the new, to innovate faithfully, to hope for change, to be grounded as we move into excitingly uncharted territory. (I love the here-and-now, in spite of its many warts, warps and weals!)

But this process is also continually reciprocal. Encountering goodness in the contemporary (think of the rightful pressure of feminism and the women's movement on the patriarchal assumptions of church polity, say) enables us to discover those elements in our tradition (the ekklesia of equals) which were actually way ahead of their time. It's just that we didn't get them. The newness of the kin-dom of God is startling. These 'traditional' recoveries can, in turn, challenge the excesses and corruptions of the present (the idea that either biology or gendered culture are destiny, say, which have been problematics within feminism throughout its history).

To make this kind of thing possible, we need living moral communities (congregations, networks, associations) which are also interpretative communities - those who take conscious and collective responsibility for carrying the past into the future in ways that free us, unite us, and respond to visions of humanity and the world which are enriching, compassionate, non-violent and expanding. This is a massive task, I know. The alternative belief in some round-the-corner political fix, or the temptation to seek a new piety (some current secularism has an unhealthy belief in its own inherent goodness and the evil of that which it contends, say) may look overwhelming.

But, being a Christian, I really do believe that the resources of an unlimited, fathomless, unbargainable, wholly non-competitive love can re-make us and enable us to be re-makers - if we start to help each other behave with the humility and commitment which is, in fact, a true life of prayer. (Prayer means "living beyond our means" as fallible creatures graced by God, rather than people who have to rely just on willpower).

What's depressing is that many Christians appear not to believe this at all, to judge from their public behaviour. They appear to believe that the Gospel somehow warrants them to compel others, to seize 'right' by might, and to defend their interests with every weapon at their disposal. Those convictions are the core of the US religious right, and of the newer UK "we are being persecuted" lobbies, sadly. And their distorted definitions of what is 'right' and what 'interests' really matter are, of course, central to the problem. Jesus suggested that those who seek to defend life to the death end up losing it. 'Christian ideology' fails to see this in any way.

Meanwhile, for all its failings (and I am sure they are many) Ekklesia and its allies are trying to point in a very different direction. I'd like to think that RO are too, but they seem to want to reinvent Christendom. Which is a very bad idea indeed, in my book. I've enjoyed the beginnings of an exchange with John Milbank about this, and hope it can continue at some point. Meanwhile, his Centre of Theology and Philosophy at the University of Nottingham has helpfully put up a link to the BBC Radio 4 Beyond Belief discussion on Christian Socialism which featured John and my colleague and friend Jonathan Bartley. [Picture: East London Mosque]

Saturday, July 07, 2007


Thanks to Deirdre Good (specifically her fine blog On Not Being A Sausage) for pointing me in the direction of Daniel J. Mahoney's 'City Journal' review of Vaclav Havel's memoir, To the Castle and Back, published by Knopf. The article explores the twists and turns of his interestingly textured thought. Whether politics can be substantially re-grounded in a notion of what John D. Caputo calls "a passion for the impossible" without a commitment to the transcendent as more than simply notional (otherwise it remains just a re-working of the C19th Romanticism of "the sublime"), is the interesting theological question inscribed (but not really explored) on the body of Havel's work - which commendably takes "doing the truth" - a quirky Johannine phrase, actually - as its datum. In many respects it could be described as the negotiable space between those two overlapping but distinctly different "apostles of the impossible", Jacques Derrida and Jean Luc Marion (q.v. on FaithInSociety).

Mahoney writes: "In his post-1989 books and speeches, Havel [pictured] continued to defend a moral vision of politics that he called “nonpolitical politics” or “politics as morality in practice.” He identified this vision with the demanding but liberating task of “living in truth.” Havel refused to identify politics with a dehumanizing “technology of power,” the notion that power was an end in itself. Instead he defended a moral order that stands above law, politics, and economics—a moral order that “has a metaphysical anchoring in the infinite and eternal.” His speeches as president, many collected in English in The Art of the Impossible (1997), were artful exercises in moral and political philosophizing, enthralling Western audiences."

Friday, July 06, 2007


The idea that nice David Cameron has transformed the Tories into a party of caring, sharing greenery and social concern begins to look decidedly suspect whenever you actually examine their policies on crunch issues involving, er, money. After all, wanting to hang on to your piles of dosh is still one of the main reasons for voting Conservative. So part of the aim of the current veneer of social progressivism is, apart from trying to steal Gordon Brown’s clothes, aimed at removing the one barrier that has stopped many people doing so in recent years – the ‘nasty party’ image.

But what of the substance behind the spin? Well, confronted with the mounting evidence about soaring private debt and its clear relation to unscrupulous lending policies in the private sector, the Conservatives are conveniently trying to blame government borrowing (which is actually running at a third of the general rate) for the Bank of England’s decision to hike interest rates. They are also seeking to magic away the case for financial regulation (which New Labour is no more committed to, incidentally). And astonishingly they are suggesting that ‘more competition’ in the financial services industry sub-prime will help. As Will Hutton of the Work Foundation pointed out on BBC2 TV’s Newsnight programme yesterday – this is a major part of the problem, not part of the solution. Economically vulnerable people are already swimming in an ocean of meaningless and often misleading choices.

But the suasions of neo-liberal ideology – which is really a form of deformed secular theology – are such that the facts of the dislocated money economy (which operates on quite different terms to the productive economy) are obscured – especially in the hands of those whose vested interests (in spite of rhetoric about combating poverty) are firmly entrenched on the side of the ‘haves’ rather than the ‘have nots’. The image may change, but the centrifugal nature of organised conservatism does not. Meanwhile, interest rates are likely to increase and house prices slow down – a double trap for many.

Some of the underlying issues are explained in Peter Selby’s important 1997 study Grace and Mortgage: The Language of Faith and the Debt of the World (Darton, Longman and Todd).

Thursday, July 05, 2007


"A widow with no shame confronted a judge with no conscience.
Time and again she pleaded for vindication before him.
He finally gave in because, even if ethics did not bother him,
she did."

Whatever you think of the details of some of his historical and scholarly judgements, John Dominic Crossan is always helpfully disturbing. The author of God and Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now (2007, available at the link from Metanoia Books), and many other works, did a fabulous job a few years ago when he compiled The Essential Jesus: Original Sayings and Earliest Images (Harper Collins 1994). Its core is a sharp, arresting set of "dynamic equivalents" for some of the best known recorded remarks of Jesus - an attempt to replicate their shock and impact for a world (and especially a church) which has now grown over-familiar or complacent about them. Crossan explains how and why he chose and rendered these texts. He makes modest claims about his procedures. And and the book also contains notes on these words' social context and significance - then and now. See also his Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography.

The saying above conveys the essence of the parable traditionally called 'The unjust judge' or the 'importunate widow' (Luke 18. 2-8). The point is not that the judge is analogous to God, as over-hasty and less-informed readers (like dear Richard Dawkins?) are apt to conclude... rather the reverse: that the God-movement in the world, far from being superstitious obeisance to a distant and unmoved ruler, is actually like the persistence of the poor in demanding a different kind of kin-dom, based on right relations. It invites us to a social, personal, spiritual and intellectual reversal of expectations. The God beyond 'gods' changes us precisely by being not being part of our world of competitive relations and by inviting us to a love that cannot be manipulated by favour. Like the widow, the God of Jesus is an outsider to the demanding expectations of the regnant - be they self-styled believers or self-styled non-believers.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007


Having invested half-heartedly in largely rhetorical criticisms of capitalism for many years, especially in ecumenical circles, church leaders these days are apt to demonstrate their 'realism' by accommodating themselves to the contrary rhetoric of market efficacy and the fruits of 'wealth creation'. This is equally superficial. I critiqued it in some detail (both economically and theologically) in the paper Is God Bankrupt? A response to Prosperity with a Purpose. For while being "against globalisation" per se is a bit like being against gravity (the issue is what kind of globalisation), and while 'state socialism' has collapsed in a heap as an alternative theory of action, the questions about the insidious nature of Mammon remain.

What's more, the churches, in spite of their struggles, have at their disposal concrete resources, assets, structures, investments and relations which could - if considered as the fabric for a Gospel which affirms both gift-giving and a transforming society of equals (ekklesia) - contribute towards alternative ways of 'doing economy'. That is what is needed both within, and in contrast to, the overwhelming money-driven nature of our dominant systems. And it is a concern shared by greens, labour movements, corporate responsibility campaigners, monetary justice reformers, fair trade advocates, and other 'new economics' advocates. But the churches are too busy arguing about sex and survival to notice what is really at stake.

Which is why it is timely that a leading East German Protestant - who was a critic of the old GDR and cannot simply be accused of 'mindless leftism' - has spoken out strongly against the seductions and deceits of capitalist (specifically neoliberal) ideology for the churches. See the full article here. "What are the dominant interests in the church: self-preservation, maintaining its position, increasing its profile or service for others?" Heino Falcke (picture above) asked a conference at the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt in eastern Germany, where Martin Luther once trained as a Roman Catholic monk. He called for a renewal of social-ist (sic) thinking and practice as an ecclesial necessity. Now there's something worth thinking about. But don't expect it to raise so much as an eyebrow at the forthcoming Church of England General Synod - where there will be much more important internecine scores to settle.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007


"Being busy does not always mean real work. The object of all work is production or accomplishment and to either of these ends there must be forethought, system, planning, intelligence, and honest purpose, as well as perspiration. Seeming to do is not doing." - Thomas A. Edison

"Work is love made visible. And if you cannot work with love but only with distaste, it is better that you should leave your work and sit at the gate of the temple and take alms of those who work with joy." - Kahlil Gibran

Courtesy of Don Iannone's interesting Conscious Living Poetry blog, which is now continuing over at Poetic Alchemist... after he had a near escape from becoming a used car salesman. Phew! More about Don here.

Monday, July 02, 2007


So, the third series of the revived Doctor Who is over. It's a programme I grew up with intermittently in the '70s, and which now seems to be turning viewers and revenue towards the BBC at a significant rate - due to the undeniably artful regeneration worked on it by Russell T. Davies. The genres of fantasy adventure and sci-fi are not ones that really press my buttons, though I can appreciate the ideas they throw up. But when I am in London I share a house with three people very much absorbed in such worlds, intelligently and entertainingly so. Through this I have discovered that it can be fun to live in another universe. Plus I have friends whose kids love the show. All of which means that, when I'm around, and he's on BBC1, I tune in to the Doctor to see what he's up to. I guess I've seen half of this latest series. I don't, of course, pretend to know much about DW. But I hope I know enough to comment on the 'theological projections' some people seem keen to attach to it.

The 'season finale' (which was on Saturday 30 June 2007) is a good example, since it had enough apparently "obvious" reiterations of Christian or religious notions to excite those who look out for these kind of connections. Among whom I am not, it must be said, one. The industry of dismally poor 'Christian' cultural interpretation is depressing enough, without feeding it. (Forgive me if that seems mean, but 'glib' and 'embarrassingly superficial' could be the only responses to a trawl of the dross that's out there on the internet claiming that just about every fictional character ever invented is Jesus in disguise, sort of.)

What one needs to understand, I think, is that to Russell T. Davies 'theology' (I use the inverted commas advisedly) is simply the ordering of another form of fantasy fiction. So while the references in DW are probably deliberate, they function within a set of archetypes which presuppose their redundancy in 'religious' (q. v.) terms. It may be overstating the situation to say that their use is deconstructing religion, but it would be nearer the truth. However, those who look too hard, and who want what they take to be a 'Christian' message affirmed too easily, don't get this. Doctor Who is, it seems to me, fairly discernibly post-Christian and post-religious in its assumptions (while being playfully elusive about this kind of stuff, to keep everyone on board). It absorbs 'religious' tropes into a self-generating science culture fantasy.

So, in Last of the Time Lords, 'prayer' becomes an organic, near-universal wish-fulfilment channeled through a sort of kinetic energy force-field, say. Which is, of course, an idea based on a popular (mis)understanding of prayer as the childish reaching out for help to an all-powerful but non-existent force - a notion now transcended within the 'real' DW world reconfigured by post-atomic and post-silicon based technology. (Actual prayer, by the way, is more to do with abandoning the attempt to turn the universe to one's advantage, though you wouldn't know that from the way it gets spoken about and practiced in many quarters).

Note also the way that forgiveness and nonviolence, though recognised as 'better ways', become antechambers to potentially endless imprisonment, precisely because there can be no final redemption. So The Master, who is about to be a captive in a time machine, ends up being killed by a human, his wife, whose life he took over - and who in an instant puts an end to such well-meaning futility (because, as someone has just pointed out to me, he has hypnotised her). In the bigger narrative this assumes, the power of love is not denied - but being dependent upon creaturely will, it cannot overcome sheer power. Only force can do that. That is the Doctor's fate, too. He defies death and violence as far as he can, often very far indeed. But even he is subsumed by it. This is the type of 'saviour figure' Dr Who is; the best 'incarnation of good' you could reasonably hope for in the absence of God (and the presence of a quantum leap in technology). That's post-theology, or rather (I'd argue) post bad theology - the only kind most people know.

There is much to learn in all this, of course. And like many humanistic visions that start with how good can prevail after it can safely be assumed that God is dead, Doctor Who, even while it is 'only' an entertainment show, has great moral nobility. (I would argue that Nietzsche has a considerably more realistic viewpoint, however, which is how he can recognise the tragedy of God's death in a way that more braggardly non-religion simply can't.)

If I had the time, inclination and ability, I might be be quite interested to explore what kind of 'God' has 'died' (or, rather, ceased to have any kind of meaning at all, outside the pervasive comfort-zone of 'spirituality') in much contemporary popular culture. It is, I am sure, in some way or other, 'the God of metaphysics' (a 'higher power' derived from speculative theory and transcendental analogies of being). And a good thing too. The catch, of course, is that this is taken to be the end of the God story per se, since many people who have left 'religion' or who have never felt its suasion have little grasp of (or patience for, or interest in) how to think beyond what are actually rather naive forms of forensic, positivistic and 'sola empiricism' reasoning in this area. But that is the big intellectual blindfold of Western cultures at the moment. Along with neoliberalism. And therein lies another story...

Incidentally (and excuse the momentary diversion), Jacques Derrida's later fascinating dialogues with academic theology (conversations carried out by a man who proclaimed that he"could rightly pass for an atheist") sprung from precisely this recognition about the naivete of attempts to 'end' God-talk through positivism, showing that you do not have to be a 'believer' to recognise what's wrong with some kinds of atheism. Just a person who appreciates the significance of the 'linguistic turn' and of phenomenology for confounding hubristic, analytically-developed arguments that far too many people on all sides think are (or can be) essentially 'decided'.

Anyway, back to Doctor Who! Rowan Williams made an interesting comment about the programme some time ago. There are also, I'm told, reasonable theological interractions with the Doctor around - such as Philip Purser Hallard's. Ekklesia referenced his 2005 Greenbelt talks here. I ought to look at them more carefully, but I haven't yet. Maybe when I do, and when other people get back to me about what I've written here, I shall discover that I'm on the wrong track altogether. Ah, for an intellectual Tardis, eh?

Sunday, July 01, 2007


Professor of Historical Theology at Oxford University and former senior molecular biophysicist Alister McGrath gave a talk earlier in 2007 called "The Dawkins Delusion", which is also the title of his recent book - one I will be reviewing at some point. The lecture is available for download here (sound file), and is copyright St Ebbe’s Church, Oxford (copying talks is prohibited).

As a former atheist, McGrath is respectful yet critical of the movement. In recent years, he has been especially interested in the emergence of what claims to be "scientific atheism", and has researched the distinctive approach to atheist apologetics found in the writings of the Oxford zoologist and scientific popularizer Richard Dawkins. A video of an extended discussion between Dawkins and McGrath on science and faith now available, courtesy of Dawkins' website, here (mov. file)

At present, McGrath is researching the iconic role played by Charles Darwin in atheist apologetics, and the appeal to the controversial concept of the "meme" in recent atheist accounts of the origins of belief in God.

I have a number of differences with McGrath at certain points, but he has made some thoughtful and important criticisms of Dawkins on religion in his recent two books.