Wednesday, March 19, 2008


Not so long ago I enjoyed a good discussion with the Oxford University Secular Society on "what the hell should we do about religion?" (or something along those lines). They are an interesting and open bunch, not affiliated to any one non-religious faction, and welcoming of people from different life- and belief-stances. It quite cheered me up about the possibility of thoughtful and non-rancorous conversation about "belief" and "non-belief", given much of the over opinionated non sense one finds in the papers and on the net these days, which is little more than cheap point scoring - without even being aware of that, half of the time. Anyway, Peter Hughes, a thoroughly good jurisprudence guy who plays a lead role in the OUSS, has written a response on his blog to my post yesterday on Kim Fabricius's sermon. Peter expresses (understandable) puzzlement at what looks to him like Christianity cutting its own feet from under it, and then wonders what sense one can make of classical claims about God anyway, and of motivations for apparently stepping outside accepted canons of 'proof'. It's an irenic and interesting contribution.

I think Kim's main point, with which I wholly agree, is that most of what are popularly thought of as the 'benefits' of Christian religion (neither my post nor his exempts Christianity from the criticisms we raise, incidentally) are in fact de-benefits, and have little to do with what is meant at a deeper level by elements of the tradition which are oft-quoted but little understood. Prayer, for example - which is not asking for cosmic favours, but learning to be 're-tuned' away from one's propensity to self-interest by engaging with a love which, being divine, is unconditioned and not bound up with self-perpetuation, because it arises from beyond the arena of competitive difference in which we are unavoidably embroiled. To be a follower of Christ is, from my experience and conviction, to discover possibilities of ‘life in a new register’ by simultaneously beginning to abandon (through the effect of what I can only call grace) the many efforts one may humanly make to 'grab' at it, along with attempts simply to avoid death. To do the reverse of what many critics of 'religion' think it is about, in other words.

As Nicholas Lash, a rather good theologian, points out - such ideas as these are entirely orthodox Christian ones, and the fact that they may not be understood by many inside and outside the churches is a symptom of just how deep the ignorance of reflective (and reflexive) Christian thought and behaviour has become in our culture. This is something for which I think the churches hold the greatest responsibility, on account of the way they (we) have allowed the Gospel vocation to be corrupted by the kind of interests of which Nietzsche and Foucault speak (albeit without hope of redemption, which is where I differ from them).

The rest of Peter's piece, Reasons for Believing, raises standard questions about the nature of belief in God, its status and its epistemic form, which, again, it seems to me, are widely philosophically misconstrued by both believers and non-believers. Some of the issues involved are tackled or alluded to in my essay 'What difference does God make today?', especially the second section. But I will try to give more succinct and focused responses when I have a bit more time. Disagreement on questions of belief are not going to go away, but it is helpful to distinguish between useful and non-useful lines of distinction, which is the spirit of Peter's approach too.


ChrisC said...

Agreed wholeheartedly with the direction of this until you got to Foucault. Doesn't the hope of redemption make all the difference to what one says and how one lives one's life? Choosing to cruise the more extreme S&M clubs of San Francisco as the denouement to a life must surely ring some alarm bells. For that matter, Nietzsche was pretty much deranged also.
I know the complacency of much of Christianity and the broader culture of the 21st. Century West is immensely frustrating but surely relying on nutters as a way forward is not sensible however exhilarating it may be to shock people more comfortable and less educated than oneself. I believe that how a man lives his life reflects on what he says and vice versa.

Simon Barrow said...

Yes, Chris. Redemption makes all the difference. That's why I mentioned it and said I differed from those who don't have that frame.

The congruence, incongruence and general relation between how we live and what we say or write strikes me as much more complex than you suggest, however. Foucault and Nietzsche's fallibility is reflected in their theory, plus their attempt to run away from certain kinds of fallibility, to be sure. They still make powerful and insightful observations, however, and they do so in a way which only vulnerable 'ousiders' can. We can be grateful for that, and learn from it, while dissenting from the overall picture.

(You and I seem to disagree because you seem to keep assuming that things can only be this or that, and that the this and that can only ever point in mutually exclusive directions. So if I mention a non-Christian writer or philosophy, you seem to think that I must be endorsing them in some blanket way, that this reveals an ulterior agenda within my thought, and that being oriented by the Gospel somehow prevents one from drawing insights from elsewhere. I find that a bit odd, but eating with "sinners and publicans" has always been controversial in certain circles, I guess ;) Anyway, we've probably exhausted this pattern of dialogue, so it might be easier if you dropped me an email. Best wishes, S.)

ChrisC said...

Surely the outcome differs quite drastically. And my dichotomous view is based not on a wilful refusal to understand the complexity of others views or insights but because ultimately I am concerned with the outcome. We can discuss the subtitles of this view or that view but sooner or later we have to form a view on the validity of the outcomes. A wise if not very intellectually infallible start may be to begin with the life of the person as they lived in the light of their views. This is also based on scepticism on how far philosophy actually advances our response to the question, 'How should we live?'
As I've said before you may think I view things in black and white but it's a charge you're open to as well on any number of issues. Violence is a non-negotiable, religious establishment is a non-negotiable, social justice over justice per se is a non-negotiable, rejecting intelligent design is a non-negotiable (though why it bothers you so much I’ve yet to fathom; I have no strong feelings one way or the other) etc. So let's be honest and admit that there's an element of 'lines in the sand' and inevitable conflict on both sides no matter how much else binds us together and that stroking our chins and saying, 'that's an interesting perspective' would be frankly disingenuous.
As for sinners and publicans, well I guess there's a difference between eating with and endorsing. I guess we all have our list of 'sinners and publicans' that our instincts would often like to write off.
As for my persistence on this blog I just felt you had some views which I consider more or less disastrous if they became mainstream. That’s my view and I don’t care if you do think it’s dichotomous. You express your views in a pretty outspoken and strong way. I just felt someone should push back a bit.

Simon Barrow said...

This is helpful, Chris. Gives me more of a clue as to where you’re coming from. (But as I suggested before, can we revert to email please. Otherwise the conversation might get a bit tedious for others. My address is on the Ekklesia site). A few comments.

First, I’m interested in outcomes, too. But not so much in controlling them. And not at the expense of journeys and processes, which is what discipleship is all about. The parable of the wheat and tares makes it evident that trying to sort everything out in advance is a problem. I do completely agree that philosophy can be of limited use in addressing the question 'how should we live?', and that this is the key question. The point, then, is to redirect our intellectual, practical and spiritual energies in that direction. Or, rather, to seek the grace that might redirect them.

Second, viewing the world in terms of dichotomies is not the same as having strong convictions – in the same way that perceiving all the good eggs to be in one basket is not the same as saying you are against smashing eggs. So, yes, I’m against Christians endorsing the messianic and salvific claims of violence, and I can make no sense of a doctrine of baptism which would make it OK for me to kill another Christian, or by extension the neighbour I am called to love, because a nation state or ideology said so. But that does not mean I have no respect for the bravery of the military, no use for ‘just war’ theory (it is lex talionis, and as such prefigures the gospel from without), and no awareness of the incredibly vulnerable moral space I occupy. I can thus hold a strong conviction without being dichotomous. As can you, if you so choose.

‘Non-negotiable’? That’s not how I’d put it. I’m in a constant state and zone of negotiation. But I do think the truth of the Gospel and its weak strength, which a certain worldliness does not know, can bear that.

Third, I’m glad that you think my views are dangerous. That is a great encouragement (if true!) Stanley Hauerwas once said that the definition of good theology was a world-changing idea that might get you killed – and he was, as ever, only half joking. Not that I’m looking for martyrdom… far from it. However, there is little danger that the kind of stuff we are developing on Ekklesia is likely to become mainstream, so you can rest easy. Besides, that’s not the aim. Discovering a more Body-shaped (that is, faithful) practice of church is.

Lastly, you are right not to care what I think. But only insofar as what I think is bound up with me, which is not for me to decide. (The same applies the other way of course.) ‘Bye for now… S.

Simon Barrow said...

PS. Jesus didn't endorse or un-endorse those he sat at table with. This was the reason for the scandal he caused. Nor, I suspect, was he unaffected by them - not if the story of the Syro-Poenecian woman and others is anything to go by.