Saturday, February 13, 2010


One of the more depressing aspects of trying to write about 'religion' in cyberspace, especially when you have (whatever your faults and limitations) spent a huge amount of time examining it and thinking about it, is that so many people want to dismiss and point fingers -- but not necessarily to consider the question of whether their own vocabulary and syntax on the subject might need expanding. I certainly find myself constantly aware of the limits of my language, and grateful to those who help me enlarge it, however painful that process may sometimes be.

Then there are the shafts of light and encouragement. One such came across my Mac's desktop yesterday evening, in the shape of a post entitled Religions as Schools on a very stimulating site called, evocatively, Echoes of the Name. It follows on from another piece about Keith Ward's book, Images of Eternity.

The author, Kyōshin, picks up on Nicholas Lash's insight that it would be more fruitful to conceive of religions not so much as "collections of beliefs" or propositions, as "schools whose pedagogy has the twofold purpose of weaning us from our idolatry and purifying our desire.” That includes our misshapen ideas about God as a kind of 'superbeing', rather than the transcendently free source of being. It includes a quotation from my own What difference does God make today? and an acute observation from Chris Ward of Triple Gem - the Buddhist Foundation. You can read the post yourself. I will simply reproduce here my own appreciation and response:

Many thanks for this, and for your last post - and, indeed, the site as a whole. Fascinating. I can sympathise with Chris Ward (and you). However, my experience, which includes a good chunk of time as an adult Christian educator, is that those in the churches who are keen to develop a spiritual discipline, and especially those who perceive the connection that Dorothee Soelle makes between 'resistance and mysticism' (q.v.), begin instinctively to move away from the constraining 'God as superbeing' picture. This occurs precisely through the process of shared pedagogy by means of worship and reflection that Lash describes as having the purpose of weaning us from our idolatry and purifying our desire. One also needs to be aware of the possibility that while the language of popular religion can be rough and ready (or unready!), the hearts of those who use it may be much more capacious than their presenting rhetoric. The need, of course, is to discover a language and a pattern of echoes in life that can sustain and develop this capaciousness. Equally, I know many 'simple believers' who, though they might not put it this way, know that they are speaking in metaphors - while their (academic) critics do not! Sara Maitland's book A Big Enough God is an excellent bridge in all this. On the issue and concern about "anthropomorphism", I have written more in 'What difference does God make today?' - though, once again, I am in eternal debt to the wisdom of Nicholas Lash. Grace and peace to you.

Echoes of the Name is a group blog whose contributors focus primarily on the Jōdo Shin stream of Pure Land Buddhism but also write from time to time on other subjects including Christianity, Philosophy and Zen. I wish there were more Christian websites that demonstrated a similar capacity to reside deep within their own tradition while being open and engaging towards others.

Interestingly (to me, anyway!), one of the as-yet-unrealised book projects I have in hand, on 'God after Christendom', has the working title The Unfamiliar Name, drawing from a phrase of T. S. Eliot's in Little Gidding. There is an interesting consonance between the apophatic way within Christianity and elements of philosophical Buddhism, though we may finally diverge (as I do also from Derrida, who I nevertheless love) on the designation of 'the real'. Aquinas, Bonhoeffer, John Caputo, Michael Barnes, Richard Kearney (The God Who May Be and The Wake of Imagination), Nicholas Lash (The Beginning and the End of 'Religion'), Ruth Page and the more mystical Anabaptists are some of the lights to my negotiation of this intriguing area of prayer and intellectual discourse.

Friday, February 12, 2010


When I was in Exeter recently, a friend asked me why I had been so silent on FaithInSociety of late - and, to be honest, for about the past 12 months and more, since my 'post' rate was only about one-a-week last year, after a fertile period between 2005-8. The answer, of course, is "the distraction of life, and related matters." Well, that and Twitter, where I may be regularly if fleetingly found, my work blog on Ekklesia, my regular column, together with various other national and international media interventions. Oh, yes, and Facebook, more for the networking, and Only Just Offside (for therapy). Put that together with other work and domestic commitments, reading and bits of recreation and you can see why less really is more. Cyberspace can become an unhelpfully all-encompassing reality if you allow it, especially if, as with Ekklesia, it is the basic coinage for what you do.

From a purely technical point of view (though these things are never "purely technical" if you have any level of self- and other-awareness), the issue is how to consolidate. I don't really believe in cross-posting, and certainly not in using tweets to update your Facebook status. Either use each medium for what it's best at, and originate originally, or don't. That said, I have been wondering whether to roll this space into my Ekklesia blog. But that is more issue-based or researchy (or would be, if I wrote more about research issues), whereas this offers an opportunity to be more personal, reflective and theological, and to have the odd conversation (sic!). So I think I will try to use them both in those distinct ways. But with the proviso that (as I often say) if you start to worry about "not posting enough" then something is seriously wrong in terms of life balance. Writing, in whatever form, and to whatever audience (or lack of audience) ought to be an effervescence not a chore, and other things in life ought to take priority. So if I'm here I'm here, and if I'm not I'm not, I guess.

All of which takes me to Lent, which is impending, and which, as I observed in my recent sermon The world's storms waiting to be stilled, "is a period within the Christian tradition which is all about reassessment and renegotiation. What and who are we living for? Where and with whom is the true value of life to be found? What shall we keep hold of and what shall we let go of? What is it that sustains us in the face of want, or of excess?"

Much more important than "am I blogging enough / not enough /too much." Though I see that David Keen over on St Aidan to Abbey Manor has just started a useful conversation, entitled That'll Do, on giving up his blog for Lent. So, yup, that's St Aidan of Lindisfarne in the picture - thank you, David.


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