Friday, June 30, 2006

The Myth of Expository Preaching

the great giveaway: The Myth of Expository Preaching & the Commodification of the Word: "Expository preaching operates under the assumption that the congregation (or radio listeners) is composed of individual Cartesian selves isolated and separated from each other yet capable of listening and receiving truth as information from the pulpit."

Good description of the way in which secular culture (what I call Modernism) infects much 'conservative' theology, and also why 'Sola Scriptura' cannot survive the change in culture.


Thursday, June 29, 2006

On pastoring

Does Ministry Fuel Addictive Behavior? - "But here is reality. Well-meaning pastors can work 80-hour weeks and still not be able to please their flocks." (HT Eternal Echoes)

I was told something very interesting yesterday. When pastors are under stress, they lose things in the following order:
1st Their wider reading;
2nd Their prayer life;
3rd Their sense of humour;
4th Their humanity.

I'm coming more and more to the conclusion that the cultural expectations on ministers need to be put through the blender. I think often of One Salient Oversight's comment about teaching being the essential part of ministry (for the truth is pastoral), and also of some of my hassles.
The old is dying and the new cannot yet be born. In the interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear. (Gramsci)
Quite what this means for where I am I do not yet know. I'm pretty sure I am where God wants me though.

X-Men 3

A tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

As such, profoundly disappointing. I wonder if there will be a "Director's Cut", folding in at least a further half hour of plot development and characterisation. That would be worth watching.

Four Tough Questions

Get Religion has offered a very interesting Four Tough Questions, with a view to discerning whether someone is a liberal or conservative.

(1) Are biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Was this a real — even if mysterious — event in real time? Did it really happen?

SN: Yes. Tho' there is room for a much longer answer clearing up ambiguities.

(2) Is salvation found through Jesus Christ, alone? Is Jesus the Way or a way?

SN: Yes - but I don't think they have to call Jesus BY that name (see here)

(3) Is sex outside of the Sacrament of Marriage a sin? The key word is sin.

SN: Yes, but I don't see it as necessarily grievous, especially compared to the sin that we are all saturated in.

(4) Should Anglican leaders ban the worship, by name, of other gods at their altars?

SN: Absolutely! It boggles the mind that this is even a question.

[You can tell that I am catching up on my blogroll today - nice way to spend the morning of my day off :o) ]

Deciding to hope

This is by way of a more personal follow-through to that last post. Ranter describes a situation where he has genuine need of an SUV; Looney, in comments, wonders "have you done anything" in this respect.

Truth be told, my lifestyle has changed very little. My research hasn't yet got to the stage of forcing major changes in behaviour (tho' I think it will - I just do things very s - l - o - w - l - y). I've done some easy things (eg shifting to renewable electricity, beginning the process of planting vegetables) but the major stuff - if anything, I'm moving in the wrong direction. Two major ways in particular: we are sending our children to a private school, which will result in a major increase in our driving and petrol consumption; and child number three is now on the way. Why this decision, in a context where it is the population explosion driving all the problems? Various reasons.

I might be wrong about Peak Oil.

The crunch (for the West) probably won't really hit for another ten years or so - and we have to do the best for our children today.

I don't believe the crash is in our power to prevent (tho' God's grace may); the crash will cause a huge reduction in population; the problems faced in that situation will be very different to those faced now. In particular I think the environment for my children will be much more hazardous, violent and fraught, and Psalm 127 is never far from my mind.

In the end, though, there is a more or less explicit thread of nihilism in the die-off mind-set, and I cannot accept that. Whilst I can accept that Jerusalem will be destroyed, yet will the exiles return.

And so I decide to hope.

Memory and Virtue

This is what Wikipedia might call a 'stub'.

The Alasdair MacIntyre quotation (the conclusion of 'After Virtue') that has haunted me since I first read it in 1990:
"What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time, however, the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another – doubtless very different – St Benedict."
Peak Oil is what has crystallised a number of strands in my thinking about these issues. I am moving more and more to the view that the core Christian task in these times may not be to prevent the catastrophe from coming - I do think we should do what we can, I just don't believe we have the capacity to control the process, or prevent a significant reduction in worldwide human population - but to ensure that the events are witnessed and chronicled, in order that whatever remains of our civilisation in the coming centuries can move to a more human future - doubtless never a perfect future, but one more step beyond where we are now.

What we will need to cultivate are our memories and our virtues. Perhaps a new monasticism, one which both embraces scientific processes (to preserve technology) and places that scientific capacity within the larger moral and human framework which enables our flourishing.

More on this as time permits.


Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Time to get embarrassed

Those of you with pretensions to genuine musical taste should look away now.

Don't say you weren't warned....

Ranter tagged me with the musical meme: List seven songs you are into right now. No matter what the genre, whether they have words, or even if they're not any good, but they must be songs you're really enjoying now. Post these instructions in your blog along with your 7 songs. Then tag 6 other people to see what they're listening to..


1. I like it, Narcotic Thrust
2. Crazy, Gnarls Barkley
3. Personal Jesus, Johnny Cash (sometimes the Depeche Mode original, dependent on mood)
4. Clocks, Coldplay
5. Porcelain, Moby
6. Sometimes You Can't Make it On Your Own, U2 (could have been one of half a dozen U2; this one just coz I'm thinking about my father a fair bit at the moment)
7. The Man Comes Around, Johnny Cash

I'm not sure I have the nerve to tag someone on this....


Tuesday, June 27, 2006


Every so often I let my attention wander away from the nitty-gritty details of Peak Oil, and I focus on the long term future (about which I remain relatively optimistic, ie there will be continuing civilisation (continuity of cultural memory), albeit with a smaller population).

Then I have another look at what is actually going on, and I get terrified thinking about the great dislocation that we will be journeying through over the next ten to fifteen years.

'By 2020 the current 85million barrels a day production could be reduced to 25 mbd. THIS IS A BIG DEAL'

No shit, Sherlock. We're fucked.

(Please forgive the obscenity; flatter language is also obscene when it obscures the truth)

The only reason for being an Anglican

Anglican Communion News Service: "The only reason for being an Anglican"

A wonderful statement and example of servant leadership from ++Rowan.

Why I blog

In the interstices I've been thinking much about why I blog, partly inspired by the CT article referenced here, but also by something Tim wrote about stepping back from blogging to a certain extent. I'm enough of a Catholic to feel guilty about anything in which I take pleasure, and I take great pleasure in the writing of this blog, but knowing that is normally enough to keep the guilt chained down. Yet I want to express something more constructive than 'it's fun'.

Blogging, it seems to me, isn't anything else; it is sui generis. It has links and overlaps with existing art and media, but it has it's own rationale. Rather in the way that film cannot be understood through the lenses of other art forms (it is not art, it is not literature, it is not theatre, it is not opera - see this book), so too blogging is not journalism (although it can be journalistic); nor is it a diary (although it shares many elements in common). It is a new form of communication: democratic, chaotic, narcissistic, fertile.

What begins by reflecting the existing cultural forms slowly takes its own shape, as it manifests what Aristotle calls its telos, the point to which its development tends. Rather in the way that children will develop first by copying the behaviour of their forebears, then rebelling against it, and then finding their own maturity, so too the most prominent blogs have taken on the form of the mainstream media, as transmitters of news and stories (I'm thinking of Instapundit). Yet it seems to me that the inherent construction of a blog tends against that shape. There may well be blogs which end up as news vendors - large trees within the blogging ecology - but they strike me as being a little bit like Olympic athletes - they have gone so far in pursuit of one aspect of their existence that they have become distorted and mis-shapen. I think the proper telos of the blog is more akin to flowers or weeds, or perhaps mustard plants.

The heart of a blog is an individual voice. It is the record of what passes through the mind and experience of one particular person, and to that extent, it is akin to a private diary. Where it is radically irreducible to that existing form, however, is that it is not only public but interactive. It would be as if someone writing their private diary had a team of friends kibitzing them whilst they wrote.

This has major effects. It inhibits full disclosure, whilst at the same time raising the value of such personal disclosure as may be made. More importantly it also provides much richer soil for personal growth: self-pity, for example, is more likely to be challenged in a public forum. Again, this is not something which is new - it is a classical sign of friendship - yet it does take a different form in the blogosphere.

Which brings me to the final point that I wish to make. Certainly with me, and I believe with others, the existence of blogging has allowed a side of my character which had been submerged to emerge into a more conscious awareness. Those things about which I once merely read and pondered - with very occasional conversation - are now routinely matters of public record and comment. That can only be healthy. In trying to visualise this, I cannot escape an image from James Cameron's The Abyss, when the alien intelligence comes into the submarine rig:

That's a little like how it feels. I cannot believe God is absent from the process.

I blog because it is a sharing of thoughts and impressions, a working out of daily life, which, if not examined, loses worth and value. It is the sharing, the reciprocity, which enhances its Quality; in truth, it is the opposite of solipsism - it is solitarily social, not socially solitary.

Thank you for reading.


Saturday, June 24, 2006


I won't always do an evening piccie, even if there seems to have been a lot of them recently. It's just that the morning ones sometimes seem so drab that I wanted to show what it looks like when it is cloudless, which it more typically is in the summer.

Big blue sky.

Discussing things

The mythology of science post was something I wrote in May 2003, and posted to the mailing list. See the original here. Various responses (which you can explore from that site) but none actually made me change my view (which does happen - did happen at least twice, on significant things, whilst I was there - one was US foreign policy/capitalism). I wrote quite a bit over the course of four or five years at the MoQ site, and I'm going to progressively transcribe some of the more substantial ones into the blog.

My quotation from Wittgenstein at that time seems appropriate: "Even to have expressed a false thought boldly and clearly is already to have gained a great deal." Which is what I was trying to do with the mythology of science - express a particular thought boldly and clearly.

As for the etiquette of discussing these things, there was something quoted by John Beasley on the MoQ forum which has always stuck with me, and which I think is the appropriate guide:
"The 'third rate' critic attacks the original thinker on the basis of the rhetorical consequences of his thought and defends the status quo against the corrupting effects of the philosopher's rhetoric. 'Second rate' critics defend the same received wisdom by semantic analyses of the thinker which highlight ambiguities and vagueness in his terms and arguments. But 'first rate' critics "delight in the originality of those they criticise...; they attack an optimal version of the philosopher's position--one in which the holes in the argument have been plugged or politely ignored."
That's what I think we should aim for - that's what I think, for a Christian, seeking the truth in love amounts to. We accept that we are none of us in this life completely transparent to the truth and so we explore together, delighting in difference, ever willing to refashion ourselves according to the light which is within us and without us.

Don't Feed the Trolls

Goodbye, Blog - Books & Culture: "And then there are the 'trolls': people who comment specifically in order to get a rise out of other commenters—people who have never transcended the discovery that being extremely annoying is one of the most reliable ways of getting attention. Most of us, by third grade or so, come to understand that hostile attention is probably worse than no attention at all, but trolls never learn to make such subtle discriminations. Thus no law of the blogosphere is more important—though also more widely ignored—than 'Don't feed the trolls.'"

Good article at Christianity Today, pouring cold water over all my blogging daydreams.


Friday, June 23, 2006


Preaching Peace: On GC 2006

Preaching Peace: On GC 2006: "There is a fundamental, structural difference between the sacrifice of Jesus and the sacrifice described at General Convention."

One of the best analyses of GC2006 I've read.

Reading Lists

Since studying English Literature at school (up to age 18) I have held on to two recommended reading lists. I was reminded of them the other day, and I thought I would share them with you.

List One, called ‘A Crash Course in English Literature’, listed by J Neil Waddell
The Book of Common Prayer: Orders for Morning and Evening Prayer
King James Bible: Genesis 1-4, Psalms 9, 19, 23, 24, 46, 90, 100, 137; Ecclesiastes 3; Song of Solomon; Isaiah 9.2-7; Gospel of Matthew; St John 1.1-14; 1 Corinthians 13; The Revelation of St John

The Battle of Maldon
Chaucer: General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales; Knight’s, Franklin’s or Wife of Bath’s Tale
Gawain and the Green Knight

Shakespeare: Sonnets 1, 2, 15, 18, 29, 55, 60, 64, 71, 130
Donne: The Exstasie, A Nocturnal upon St Lucy’s Day
Herbert: The Agonie, Life
Vaughan: The Waterfall
Milton: Lycidas, Paradise Lost books I and II
Dryden: Absalom and Achitophel
Pope: The Rape of the Lock, An Essay on Man
Gray: Elegy in a Country Churchyard
Keats: Ode to a Nightingale, Ode on a Grecian Urn
Wordsworth: Tintern Abbey
Tennyson: Ulysses, The Lady of Shalott, The Palace of Art, In Memoriam
WB Yeats: Wild Swans at Coole, Easter 1916, Sailing to Byzantium, Byzantium
TS Eliot: Four Quartets, The Waste Land

Marlowe: Doctor Faustus
Shakespeare: Love’s Labours Lost, Richard II, Hamlet, King Lear, The Tempest
Tourneur: The Revenger’s Tragedy
Webster: The Duchess of Malfi
Congreve: Love for Love
Wycherley: The Country Wife
Sheridan: School for Scandal, The Rivals
Ibsen: Ghosts, The Doll’s House
Wilde: The Importance of Being Earnest
Chekhov: The Cherry Orchard
Beckett: Waiting for Godot
Osborne: Look Back in Anger
Pinter: The Birthday Party, The Caretaker
Stoppard: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

Defoe: Robinson Crusoe
Swift: Gulliver’s Travels
Fielding: Joseph Andrews
Sterne: Tristram Shandy
Austen: Emma, Pride and Prejudice
Scott: Waverley
Thackeray: Vanity Fair
Dickens: Great Expectations, Bleak House
Eliot: Middlemarch
James: Portrait of a Lady
Hardy: Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Jude the Obscure
Forster: Howard’s End

List Two, called ‘Novels worth reading’, listed by Andrew Copping 1983
Selected classics:
Henry Fielding: Joseph Andrews, Tom Jones
Laurence Sterne: Tristram Shandy
Walter Scott: The Heart of Midlothian
Jane Austen: Emma, Pride and Prejudice
Charlotte Bronte: Jane Eyre
Emily Bronte: Wuthering Heights
George Eliot: Silas Marner, Mill on the Floss, Middlemarch
WM Thackeray: Vanity Fair
Charles Dickens: Great Expectations, Bleak House
Thomas Hardy: Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Jude the Obscure
Joseph Conrad: Heart of Darkness, Nostromo
James Joyce: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
DH Lawrence: Women in Love, Sons and Lovers
Virginia Woolf: To the Lighthouse
EM Forster: A Passage to India
Aldous Huxley: Brave New World
George Orwell: 1984
Evelyn Waugh: Scoop, The Loved One

Post-war novels
Kingsley Amis: Lucky Jim
Stanley Barstow: A Kind of Loving
Malcolm Bradbury: The History Man
John Braine: Room at the Top
Joyce Cary: The Horse’s Mouth
Margaret Drabble: The Millstone
Lawrence Durrell: The Alexandrian Quartet, Justine
John Fowles: The French Lieutenant’s Woman, The Collector
Robert Graves: I, Claudius
Graham Greene: The Power and the Glory, The Comedians
William Golding: The Inheritors, The Spire
LP Hartley: The Go-between
Arthur Koestler: Darkness at Noon
Malcolm Lowry: Under the Volcano
Ian McEwan: In Between the Sheets, The Cement Garden
Compton Mackenzie: Whisky Galore
Nancy Mitford: Pursuit of Love
Iris Murdoch: The Bell, The Sandcastle
Edna O’Brien: Girl with Green Eyes
Alan Paton: Cry, The Beloved Country
Tom Sharpe: Wilt
Nevil Shute: On the Beach
CP Snow: The New Men
Muriel Spark: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
Davie Storey: This Sporting Life
JRR Tolkien: The Lord of the Rings
Charles Webb: The Graduate
Patrick White: Riders in the Chariot

The American Novel
James Baldwin: Go Tell it on the Mountain
Saul Bellow: Hertzog
Truman Capote: Breakfast at Tiffany’s
Raymond Chandler: The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye
JP Donleavy: The Ginger Man
Ralph Ellison: Invisible Man
William Faulkner: As I Lay Dying, The Sound and the Fury
F Scott Fitzgerald: The Great Gatsby
Dashiell Hammett: The Thin Man
Nathaniel Hawthorne: The Scarlet Letter
Joseph Heller: Catch 22
Ernest Hemingway: The Old Man and the Sea
Henry James: Portrait of a Lady
Sinclair Lewis: Babbitt
Carson McCullers: The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
Norman Mailer: The Naked and the Dead
Bernard Malamud: The Assistant
Herman Melville: Moby Dick, Billy Budd
JD Salinger: The Catcher in the Rye
Upton Sinclair: The Jungle
John Steinbeck: The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men
Mark Twain: Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court
Nathaniel West: The Cool Million

I've read perhaps 20% of these! A lifetime's task.


Thursday, June 22, 2006

The mythology of science

"Science, like painting… has a higher aesthetic. Science can be poetry. Science can be spiritual, even religious in a non-supernatural sense of the word." (Richard Dawkins).

I believe that science is built upon a particular mythology. What I mean is that science as a culturally flourishing phenomenon is propagated by the telling of particular stories; that those stories embody particular values and goals; and those values and goals are ones that are inherently religious, they are values and goals that were previously articulated by religion in general, and Christianity in particular. Thus, the key clash between Christianity and science is not that between a lower and a higher order of intellectual evolution, but between rival mythologies.

One of my principal sources for this belief is a book by the philosopher Mary Midgley, "Science as Salvation: a modern myth and its meaning" (Routledge, 1992), which is excellent and warmly recommended. She writes (p13) "We understand today that it is a bad idea to exterminate the natural fauna of the human gut. But trying to exterminate the natural fauna and flora of the human imagination is perhaps no more sensible. We have a choice of what myths, what visions we will use to help us understand the physical world. We do not have a choice of understanding it without using any myths or visions at all. Again, we have a real choice between becoming aware of these myths and ignoring them. If we ignore them, we travel blindly inside myths and visions which are largely provided by other people. This makes it much harder to know where we are going."

So what I would like to do here is try and articulate what I see as the 'foundation myth' (or meta-narrative) of science. I see this foundation as something which provides both the motivation force for particular scientists (especially the cultural apologists like Dawkins) and also as responsible for the more general acceptance of science within Modern culture.
Once upon a time our ancestors lived in the darkness of ignorance and superstition. Their lives were afflicted by all sorts of horrors - disease was rampant, borne on the backs of dirt and dust, and life was nasty, brutish and short. The Church oppressed free thinking, and forced people - at the point of torture - to accept the rulings of priests and popes, whose authority was arbitrary and archaic, and whose superstitions led to countless wars. Slowly, a few brave men resisted this oppression; they thought for themselves, they demanded evidence and clear reasons. The Church acted against them - they oppressed them with censure, they silenced them and imprisoned them, in some cases they even burned them alive. Yet the truth could not be hidden for ever. After a long period of particularly bloody warfare, when Protestants and Catholics slaughtered each other for decades, leaving nearly a third of the population of Germany dead behind them, our ancestors set up a new way of life. This new way of life was born in England at the end of the seventeenth century, in a Glorious Revolution. The authority of religious figures was reduced, and free thought was encouraged. Two men in particular allowed a new world to come into being. John Locke showed how we could be governed by Reason, both in the political realm without, and our own moral life within. No opinion should be held that could not be demonstrated without sufficient Reason, and in all things Reason should be our guide. Isaac Newton solved the major problems of astronomy and physics, and demonstrated how the world operated according to clear mathematical rules. This Glorious Revolution allowed humanity to progress out from under the cruel yoke of religious tyranny and bigotry. Since that time, we have become Enlightened and, although not all our problems have been solved, we have made tremendous Progress. The methods of Reason, of Empirical Investigation and Science, have been demonstrated to have tremendous power, and we can have confidence that all the difficulties that we face can be met by their continued diligent application. We have made tremendous strides in medicine, so that diseases and pestilence are kept in check. We have improved the fertility of the land so that now there is plenty to eat. We have voyaged from the face of the earth and stood upon the moon, looking down upon the planet of our birth. We have made such Progress, but the struggle with the old ways continues. Around the globe we still see the effect of the old superstitious ways of thinking. In Northern Ireland, in Kashmir, in the Middle East, we still see people who are dominated by religious understandings. It is only through Enlightenment that there is hope for peace. For it is not only in the practical and physical realms that the methods of Science can aid us. As Science progresses, we need to rely less and less upon the traditions of the past, for we can rely upon a sure foundation for knowledge, and have confidence in its prodigality for our future. Most importantly, now that we have Science, we no longer have to resort to superstition when faced with the deep problems: Is there a meaning to life? What are we for? What is man? Science can provide us with the answers, and only Science can offer us the prospect of a better life.
What I would want to emphasise in this story is the 'drama of salvation', ie that 'once we were in darkness, but now we have seen a great light', and that 'the light shines in the world and the darkness does not overcome it'. In other words, although the setting of the story is different, the power of the story is deeply dependent upon a religious (Christian) sensibility, ie we needed to be saved, and it is Science that has saved us, and it is by holding fast to Science that we can retain salvation. The distinctive difference between this narrative and the prior Christian narrative is primarily in the virtues that allow for participation in salvation. Instead of corporate (social) values like loyalty, obedience, self-sacrifice etc, now the virtues that are emphasised are independence, autonomy and moral courage.

My point is not to say that there is no truth in this scientific mythology (somewhat the contrary), only to point out that it exists, and that it needs to be evaluated and assessed. I think that it is largely unconscious (the extent to which it is unconscious can be gauged by how far you think the story is "the truth"), and, for better or worse, I think it needs to be brought out into the open.

"People nowadays think that scientists exist to instruct them, poets, musicians, etc. to give them pleasure. The idea that these have something to teach them - that does not occur to them." (Wittgenstein, 1939)


MoQ ecology

This is a brief MoQ post – see here for background context. If you’re not interested in obscure metaphysical discussion, look away now… (My post on a Eudaimonic interpretation of the MoQ may then be of interest – that’s here)

The MoQ sees the biological level as being carried forward by the replication of DNA. That DNA underlies all the variety of biological flora and fauna, from the virus to the plant to the dolphin. Despite the tremendous differentiation between those expressions (phenotypes) of the DNA, they are still in MoQ terms on the same level of evolution – still structured around the replication of DNA. Moreover, the interactions within the level, and between the level and the lower level (physics and chemistry) can be seen as an ecology, ie that it is fluid; without fixed barriers; the whole is more than the sum of the parts.

It seems to me that the same applies to the social level, and that the equivalent of the DNA at the social level is language. Language stretching from the cries of primates in the jungle, to warn of predators, through the mythological structuring of societies by narrative, and (most crucially) including the abstract intellectual exploration of principles and concepts. Much discussion of the MoQ, it seems to me, is vitiated by an overemphasis upon the distinction between, on the one hand, the primitive and narrative-bound language used socially, and the language used in academia and intellectual circles, which seems so different. Yet to my mind this is a category mistake. It is the equivalent of saying that, because a virus and a dolphin are so distinct, the dolphin is at a different level of evolution. Yet both the virus and the dolphin are fundamentally structured through DNA. In the same way, the founding myths of a community (including the scientific community), and all the ways in which those stories are developed (including scientific theories), remain linguistic in how they are structured and reproduced. Language is social; language IS the social level. Language is to the third level (social) what DNA is to the second level (biological).

(Underlying this is an acceptance of Wittgenstein’s view of language. See my post ‘Wittgenstein and the Philosophy of Love’ for an introduction, if you are unfamiliar).


Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Islam and violence

alastair.adversaria » Some Thoughts on Islam and Violence: "Atheism and secularism are, in many respects, working with borrowed moral capital when they condemn the violent past of Christendom. The prophetic voice of the gospels in the Church was doing this long before them. It also seems that atheism and secularism are keen to denounce the violence of Christendom because the bloodiness of their track record far eclipses any of the atrocities committed in the name of the Christian faith."

I thought this article was great (HT Byron)

Intimations of American Fascism

One Salient Oversight pointed me to this post, which I find deeply troubling.

Baptist Blogger: Greensboro Wrap-Up: "The Southern Baptist Convention has relegated Christian liberty in Christ to confessional oblivion and those who are willing to engage seriously in a discussion of its meaning and limit are characterized as an ungodly, immoral, unholy, and impure bunch of bootleggers peddling liquid licentiousness. Yet when the stars and stripes are waved, or 'God Bless America' is sung, tears roll down cheeks and hands are lifted high.

We are, it seems, no different that the German Church at the close of the Weimar Republic. Nationalism is our religion. The Gospel is now emptied of its power to set the captives free. This disturbs me more than the resolution itself. In fact, I could have stomached two years of the runner-up much easier than to stand in the convention hall and watch my fellow messengers rise to their feet when the death of Al-Zarquawi is announced. A soul is sent to hell, and we do not grieve. We cheer."

This ties in with a great deal that I have been reflecting on recently, and on which a largish post is brewing - might be a while before I get a chance to publish it though (life is hectic - the last two long posts were Blue Peters)

Flushing out

A brief thought - a prayer really - that given the election of Katharine Schori, should the GCon be so moved by the Spirit as to approve a Windsor-compliant A161 resolution, it will mean that the underlying issues of Biblical authority and theological hermeneutics will be forced to come out into the open, without resting on the fissile basis of human sexuality. Which would be in the long term interest of the progressive side of the debate, if they could but realise it. I don't expect that to happen, because I suspect there are too many lunatics on each side.

Keep praying.

UPDATE: I think that is what Schori has now achieved with B033.


Monday, June 19, 2006

Embodying Forgiveness

An address given to a church healing group, 17 March 2001

What I would like to do today is say a little about the theology of our ministry of healing and reconciliation. The role of theology is to articulate the meaning of our existence, and that means not simply the big questions – what is our place in the world? what is God like? – but also the small-scale questions, like: what is our healing group for? how should we move forward in this ministry? So what I will try to cover in this address is the meaning of what we do, when we lay hands on one another in the name of our Lord, and pray for healing and reconciliation.

“Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him.”
The Epistle of James, 5.14

I have taken the quotation from James as my text, because, first of all, it is one of the clear scriptural foundations for our practice. We meet in the name of one who healed the sick, and as we have been instructed to love one another as he loved us, so too must we continue his ministry to the sick. The quotation also falls naturally into three parts, which are going to be the framework for my talk: Who are the sick? Who are the elders of the church? And how should we pray? At the end, I want to gather these elements together, and offer a theology of our ministry of healing and reconciliation. I should add at the beginning, that this address is meant to be a contribution to discussions, and not the final word. Theology is the product of a praying community, and it is the community that gives expression to the theology in their behaviour and actions. It is the practical application of words that gives relevance to theology.

Who are the sick?

In the New Testament, there is no division between physical and spiritual sickness. Consider a passage from early on in Jesus’ ministry. [Lk 5 17-26, Mk 2 1-1, Mt 9 1-8] This is where Jesus is teaching in a room, and the room is crowded out with all those who have come to hear his Word. And because there is such a press of space, a paralytic is lowered down into Jesus’ presence from above. Jesus says to the paralytic that his sins are forgiven – at this point no physical healing is offered. This saying of Jesus offends the Pharisees who are present, who consider it blasphemy for Jesus to be forgiving sins. Jesus then says, ‘that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’ he tells the paralytic to get up and walk, at which point the paralytic is healed – and all were amazed and glorified God. There is much in this passage which could be drawn out – perhaps that is something that you would like to do individually during the quiet moments of today – but for my purposes the important point is the tying together of physical illness and spiritual sickness.

When we are talking about the healing ministry, then, we are talking about the most fundamental of sicknesses – our separation from God, our departure from Eden. The Christian claim is that this separation leads to a lessening of our physical well-being, that the life given to us from God, which dwells within us, which forms and shapes our lives, is frustrated and corrupted by our separation from God. In other words, by our sin. And this sin, which is our separation from God, has a large appetite that extends into our relationships with one another, causing us to become separate from one another, the broken fragments of the one Body.

Now, this could be taken to mean that if someone is ill, then they are sinful, and the illness is something that has been brought upon the person by their own actions. It can therefore be seen as the judgement of a wrathful God upon his errant children. This language has been heard in recent years in discussions over HIV and AIDS – it is a plague of Biblical proportions, sent by a vengeful deity angry at the transgressing of his moral law. That perspective is not a Christian perspective. When we address the suffering present in this world, we are running up against one of the harder mysteries of our existence. Why do bad things happen? In particular, why do bad things happen to good people? I do not have a straightforward answer to that sort of question. The answer that I stumble along with centres upon the nature of faith: that we have a choice between trusting that there is an answer, even if we cannot fully understand it in this world; or making the decision to say that there is no answer – which rejects God, and consequently rejects all value and meaning from our lives, falling into the abyss of nihilism. It seems to me that it is impossible to really live in that fashion – at most it is a decision to move passively through the corridors of this world, never looking up or engaging deeply with our existence. If we are to truly live – live in a way which reaches into the dark earth in which we are rooted, in a way which reaches up to the bright heavens for which we strive – then we have no option other than the way of faith.

When we are confronted with sickness, then, we are confronted with a mystery, something that we cannot fully understand or grasp, and something that, in consequence, draws us closer to God. It is not the case that all sickness is the result of human sin, which can be overcome by the resolute application of prescription confessions and absolutions. That is to take a model of technocratic efficiency as the way of faith, a modern idolatry. Some sickness, in God’s providence, will always remain out of our reach. We must allow that to teach us humility before God, so that we may say with Job, ‘Behold I am of small account; what shall I answer thee? I lay my hand on my mouth.’

Yet some sickness is the result of sin – both sin committed by the life of a person themselves, or by those with whom they are in relationship: their immediate family and loved ones, or those forebears whose legacy shapes and mis-shapes lives over generations. It seems to me that this is where our ministry lies – in healing and reconciliation for those whose lives are blighted in body mind and spirit, and who come to be made whole.

Who are the elders?

Which brings me to the second part of my address – for who is it to whom these people come? Who are the elders of the church? The church is in a sense the easy part of that question, for the church is the community formed by the resurrection of our Lord from the dead, the community constituted by that victory over death and sin, the community within which the message of the gospel resides. In other words, us. I don’t know about you, but I sometimes feel nervous when I consider our origin: that we have been formed and commissioned by this great breach in the world, when Jesus came again amongst his disciples, and was recognised in the breaking of the bread. I don’t feel up to carrying on that message. Yet Jesus himself chose the humble fishermen to transmit his message, not the high and mighty. So perhaps we might be bold, despite our shortcomings, and trust the Spirit to enable us to carry the message forward. For we don’t have to get it perfect – part of our message, after all, is that we are redeemed from our shortcomings.

So the church is the community of the resurrection, we who have been shaped by the events of two thousand years ago. The body of Christ, who meet in his name and partake of his life. Who are the elders? The literal translation, as I am sure many of you know, is presbyters – the priests. Those who have been acknowledged by the community and commissioned to exercise leadership. Yet, to make that simple equation, of elders to priests, is I feel to miss something important. For the essence of being an elder is this recognition and commissioning by the community, this acknowledgement of growth in the faith. For the exercise of leadership is a significant responsibility, which depends upon a mature faith to be sustainable.

This language of elders, then, does not refer to our chronological age – the number of years that we have grown through, but rather to the age of our soul, to our wisdom. To be an elder in this sense is to be mature in the faith, to have marinated in the faith for such a length of time that the flavour has sunk into the bones, and can therefore be brought out again into the community.

The church is the community of the resurrection, as I said before, and it carries a message – that God in Christ was reconciling the world to himself; that in Christ sin is overcome; that in Christ we see the way, the truth, and the life, and that life is available to us in all its fullness. A message of forgiveness for our sins. When Christ healed the paralytic, he first said to him that his sins were forgiven. When the prodigal son returns from feeding the pigs, his father comes out to greet him and welcome him before he has a chance to say any words. There is more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents. We are a community whose central claim is that God moves towards us, before we get a chance to even realise our problems, let alone come to begin working on them.

This perspective, this grace of forgiveness offered without qualification or prior regard, is the essence of our faith. The elders of our faith are those in whom this message has been distilled and matured so that it has become the essence of their nature. The medicine of the gospel has reached down and healed a person so thoroughly that the healing seeks further work, overflowing outwards into the life and witness of the believer, and drawing ever more people closer to the source of our life and healing. This is a grace, the free gift of God to his children, the life in which we are called to participate. As we grow in faith, we become bearers of that grace out into the world, ready to offer it to all who are in need.

How should we pray?

So when someone comes to the church, seeking healing and reconciliation, how should we pray? This is the point where the gospel message meets the world – where we are put to the test. How is our faith made present in the world?

I mentioned earlier that Jesus does not recognise the division between physical sickness and spiritual sickness. That is a division which is overcome in him. It is related to the more fundamental division between God and humanity, which is also overcome in him – a division brought about by sin, which separates humanity from God, and an overcoming by the God-man, the one who is both fully divine and fully human: the incarnate Word. Our message centres upon the incarnation, when God was revealed in human form. When we bring the gospel to bear – when we pray with someone who is sick, in other words – we too must be an incarnation of God’s love.

For our message of communion and reconciliation needs to be embodied if it is to take effect, just as the Word of God needed to be embodied if we were to recognise Him and be transformed by Him. This is why we have the laying on of hands as a necessary part of our prayers. This physical, embodied action is – in a very direct sense – the incarnation of the gospel, the embodiment of forgiveness. And as such, this action fits naturally in a Eucharistic context, where we meet the body of Christ.

The gospel that we proclaim is a bright and living fire, which burns out the darkness within us. As the gospel takes root in our hearts – as we know ourselves to be healed of our sins, brought closer to God, and enabled to participate in the true life that lightens every heart – so we can be bearers of that light into the world. When we pray, we come closer to God, we develop our relationship with him, and we are known and transformed by him. And prayer does not have to be a falling onto our knees and closing our eyes – although that is essential. It is also, for example, a study of scripture, taking that word of God into our hearts, allowing us to be transformed by its message. With all our prayer – whether we hold the suffering of the world before God in our intercessions, whether we stand before God alongside the broken in body, mind or spirit, or whether we ourselves are the broken ones, seeking God’s grace in our own lives – in all these contexts, the life of prayer offers the opportunity to transform our situations. We cannot know how the situation will be transformed – we cannot prejudge God’s intentions for our lives, or those who come to us seeking healing – but we can trust in the grace that has been given us, that if we come before God in prayer, we will be heard, and we will be sanctified by grace.

The laying on of hands, therefore, is an expression of our life in prayer. Our life in prayer is what enables us to mature in the faith, to grow more steadfast in our love, to become able to take the gospel into the world, where it can work its mysterious favour upon all with whom we have to do. If what we do is rooted in prayer, if we (to get really theological) are able to participate in the self-giving love of the Holy Trinity, then in our healing ministry we will manifest God’s love to the world, we will embody forgiveness.


For as I said earlier, what we do with theology only makes sense if it is acted out in our daily lives. What we do in our service of healing and reconciliation is incarnate the gospel, but that incarnation needs to work on us, moving into us as well as moving out from us. I know that many people have found participation in the service to be healing in this way, and it is certainly something that is natural and a real part of our ministry – we share in the ministry of the wounded healer, who died to free us from our sins.

Our participation in healing prayer, in the laying on of hands, is something that must also deepen our own faith, and call us forward to acknowledge and be healed of our own sin. Forgiveness is something that we must practice ourselves, and that is hard work. The service is the capstone of the ministry, but the foundations are our own lives. The foundations lie in our reactions to pain in our own life – the letting go of offence, the refusal to nurture anger or hold a grudge. To do this requires developing new habits and new casts of mind – to put on the armour of Christ, as Paul has it. Yet this is the new life which we are called to create as a church, a new living community which holds reconciliation at the centre of its life and witness. Just as our faith is a journey, not a destination, so also is the ministry of healing. May the risen Lord guide us on our journey, and enable us to be ministers of his grace. Amen.

(Prompted by reading the excellent book with this title by L Gregory Jones)


Sunday, June 18, 2006

Moved by the Spirit

Whilst preparing that last post, I set my media player to play Andrea Bocelli's 'Con Te Partiro', which I discovered in the days after my father's death, and which I find helpful to listen to when I think about these things.

It then randomly jumped to Bob Dylan's 'I believe in you'

Then to Don Moen 'I will sing'

Then to Westminster Cathedral Choir singing the Lotti 'Crucifixus'....

What happens when you run out of words?

(My Father's Day post. My father never lived to see my children.)

What happens when you run out of words?

As I believe you all know, my father died very suddenly on Remembrance Sunday [2001]. He had suffered a major stroke the previous Thursday morning, and from that time until he slipped away peacefully on the Sunday afternoon my mother, my brother and I were by his side. As you can imagine it has been a difficult time for my family, and we are very grateful for all the messages of support and prayers that have come to us from the people of [this church].

I would like to say a few words today about what happened in those days. Now, obviously, this is difficult stuff. And when I mentioned to J____ that I was planning to talk about it today, she said she hoped it wouldn’t be too dark. I hope that I won’t be too dark; I don’t plan to be. I am fundamentally a positive person – a trait that I inherited from my father – but I believe that the truth sets us free. There are dark things in this world, Jesus was crucified, and I think it doesn’t help us if we run away screaming when we are brought face to face with the dark things of our world. For my faith is that the dark things of this world are not overpowering, that death does not have the last word. That there is an Easter morning. Or, to change the image, we are a pilgrim people, and if we are to keep walking towards the Kingdom, sometimes we must walk through the valley of the shadow of death where the only thing that can keep us from fearing the evil that surrounds us is the staff of the Good Shepherd – that is, a trust that the valley of shadow is not the whole of life.

When we were at the hospital, first and foremost, we prayed. The word prayer originally comes from a word meaning to beg, and that is what we did – we begged for the life of my father, we begged that he would not be taken from us, we begged that he would not be brain damaged or paralysed.

After a while, in a situation like this, the words begin to run out. There are only a certain number of times that you can put your whole heart into praying such words. But the process of saying those words so often, and in such a heartfelt manner, changes you. It burns off the dross that we so often fill our minds and hearts with. You get more in touch with the things that you truly value – the clutter gets swept aside, and the central building blocks of your life – your love for your nearest and dearest, your husband or father, your brother or child or friend – these come into focus. And you realise just how very precious they are. For we each bear the image of Christ within us, we are each made in the image of God, and we are each so very, very precious. I think that is how God sees us. And one thing that I take away from that hospital bed is this sense of the richness, the value, the sheer beauty of a human being, another soul. It is not easy to let something like that go.

After a day or so, my mother asked me how to pray. The words had run out, the begging didn’t seem to be being answered, and perhaps there was an element of ‘If only I could say the right words then God will be merciful to us, and spare this man’. I said to my mother that the heart of prayer is love; that if we brought our love for my father to the centre of our awareness, then God would be able to work through us. I had in mind a passage from Romans, which I shall read to you:

“We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently. In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God's will. And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8. 22-28)

It was the second part of that passage that I had in mind at first – that the Spirit prays through us. If we can only centre ourselves on God, who is the Love that is the Source of all our life, then I believe that He can work through us. If we could only bring into our hearts our love for my father, then God will be able to work through us.

It was at this time that we asked for the Chaplain to come, to administer the sacrament of anointing. I had to explain this to my nephew, who is ten years old, and I will just briefly say to you what I said to him. It’s not an exhaustive explanation as you will realise, but I think it says what is most important. I said to him that anointing with oil was a way of expressing your love and approval of someone, and that what happened with the rite of anointing was that the whole church together had blessed oil for this purpose, so that when this oil was used, it was a way of concentrating all the love of the church into the act, not just that of the people gathered around the person. It was a way of focusing and reinforcing that love into a single act.

As time went on, the doctors became more and more downbeat. On the Friday they had told us that we should prepare for the worst, and they said the same on the Sunday morning. We had been attending a service at the Chapel – it was Remembrance Sunday, “they shall not grow old, as we who are left grow old” – and we were called up to hear the sombre news. This was difficult; we had clung on to small strands of hope, and now these were taken away from us. Our clearest wish was that my father should not be suffering, and so we arranged that he should be made comfortable, and we gathered around him for his last journey. Which I won’t go into here; but I will say that it was a very peace filled time.

I need to return to my theme of talking with God. For we had tried all the words that we had, and begged with all our hearts. And then we ran out of words, and we just centred on our love for my father, hoping that this would allow God’s healing power to come through. And of course, led by me, we placed our hands on him and prayed “In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, may the Spirit of the Living God, present with us now, fill you spirit mind and body, and make you whole”.

There was still a sense, in me, that if only we did things the right way, then my father would be returned to us. This is magical thinking, it is not Christian thinking. Magical thinking is about controlling the world for our own purposes, using occult means. This is one of the main reasons for Christian missionary success – if the God of these incomers can heal the sick, give people back their sight, or knit bones back together then their magic must be the most powerful magic, their God must be the most powerful God, so let us convert to their rituals. Traces of this can still be found in the Old Testament by the way – and we can trace within the Old Testament a growth in understanding of God, from being the magical figure who was under Israel’s control, to the Creator of the universe. For the central reality that was brought home to me so clearly during those difficult days was simply this – that we are not in control. God is in control. And God will make the creation in a way of his choosing. This seems an obvious thing, a trivial truth, and yet I do believe it is one that we have almost forgotten in the structure of our lives. We have become accustomed to getting our own way with most things. If we break a leg, we expect to be able to recover, and return to our previous normal life – when that is something astonishing in human history. We are accustomed to being able to see during the dark winter hours, and be kept warm and well fed. Yet, within all the insulation that we surround ourselves with, all the comforts that chloroform the soul, God is still the fundamental ground of our being, the support on which we sit. We are utterly and irreducibly dependent upon God.

We fight against this.

We fight against it not least when we are touched by Him in a way that we do not like. We don’t like giving up our sense of control, the illusion that we are in control of our fate. And when God asserts His presence in ways that we find offensive or painful, we react against him, we hurl our anger at him, and in many cases this anger becomes a hatred, and we fight back in the only way left, by saying that we don’t believe in Him, rather as an angry child might say to a parent ‘I don’t love you any more’. And perhaps God is hurt by that in the way that a parent is cut to the quick by such a child. But to be honest, I think God’s only response to the anguished crying of “Why?” is what he says to Job:

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements--surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone, when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” (Job 38)

We don’t have a position from which to criticise God, or even to ask for an explanation. We live within the world that he has created, where we are entirely dependent on Him for our every breath. Our desire for being in control extends also to our understandings of the world. We form an understanding of the world, and it contains elements like ‘a parent will die before the child’ and ‘if I live a basically good life I won’t suffer greatly before my death’ and things like that. These act like crutches, like comforts and supports, and as long as we are aware that that is what they are then they work well. But I believe we forget that we are so wholly dependent on the grace of God for everything. And the Lord gives, and the Lord takes away; Blessed be the name of the Lord.

So why should we pray? And why should we, in this healing group, spend our time talking and praying together, and once a month come together to lay hands on those who are in need of healing, and renewal of mind and spirit?

I can’t pretend to have a full answer to that question. In particular, I can’t say with confidence that God will answer even the prayers of the faithful. When Jesus talks of the power even of faith as little as a mustard seed, or of disciples being able to do greater deeds than Him, or of the Father knowing what good things to give to His children – these things no longer have an immediate sense for me. I think that before my father’s death I still had a residual sense that God might sometimes intervene, to avert something hard from taking place. I hadn’t experienced it in my own life, but I was perfectly willing to believe that it might happen. I do not have that sense any more. In that, perhaps I gain a glimmer of what Jesus understood from the cross, when he felt himself forsaken. Some believe that Jesus expected God to bring the end of the world at that moment – when the world had judged and condemned his Son, when the battle lines and choices were clear. God didn’t do that. Instead, after the anguish, pain and humiliation of his death on the cross, Christ enters the underworld, and, in time, he emerges, changed, filled with light and peace. It hadn’t happened in the way that he expected. It happened in the way that God chose.

But there are a few things I would like to say here. The first is that the truth sets us free – and prayer brings us closer to the reality of God. When we are confronted with need, our priorities become clearer. What do we actually believe in? What do we think is important? And, as I have described, I believe that if we can but allow the love of which we are made to shine through our hearts, I think we can tune in with God’s purposes, and he will work through us. We can perhaps put to one side our comfortable certainties, and place our hearts wholly in God’s hands.

Secondly, during those days in the hospital, I felt supported and held. I’m not sure I would describe it as being held and supported by God, although I did have a profound sense that God was present in that small room. It was more a sense of being supported by prayer, that there were people praying for my father and his family, and that that support was somehow reaching me. I can’t explain that sense, all I know is that it was there.

Lastly, I have learnt the meaning of the expression ‘be grateful for small mercies’. The central and unavoidable fact of my father’s death is truly awful, and to be honest, I feel that I am still in shock; it hasn’t properly sunk in to my bones yet. There is much mourning still to come. But surrounding that hard fact, if God had decided to take my father away, to cause us so much pain – he did at least leave us with some small causes for gratitude. Gratitude that my father hadn’t been taken a few years ago, before the happy times of his most recent years. Gratitude that my father had not been left brain damaged, or paralysed, for that would truly have been a hateful condition for him to have had to endure. And grateful also for those few days that we could spend with him, so that he could know his family were with him before he slipped away, that we had a chance to hold him and to love him just a little more before he was finally taken back.

One last image. I hope that many people here will have seen the film, ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’, where Harrison Ford and Sean Connery go off in search of the Holy Grail. At the climax of the film, Indiana has to overcome a number of hurdles to reach the grail, and the last of them is the leap of faith. He has to step out across an abyss, where there are no visible means of support other than the grace of God. After much hesitation – and a little cunning – he takes the step. I am starting to realise the truth of that underlying image. That if we are to walk the path of faith, then we can rely on nothing other than the grace of God. We cannot rely on our own strength, our own understandings, not even on our own love. We are in the hands of God, He is in control. Let us trust that He loves us, and that he will take care of us, in this world, and in the next.

Let us pray:

Almighty God, who in thy wisdom hast so ordered our earthly life that we needs must walk by faith and not by sight; grant us such faith in thee that, amidst all things that pass our understanding, we may believe in thy fatherly care, and ever be strengthened by the assurance that underneath are the everlasting arms; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.


Saturday, June 17, 2006

Friday, June 16, 2006


My two pennies

Warning: this post will make little sense to North American readers(!)

Am watching - and getting dispirited by - the England performances at WC2006. We have the players, we just don't have the system to get the best out of them. Far too much long ball - but that is what happens if you emphasise Beckham and Crouch. So, much as I like Crouch, I'd keep him on the bench. I'd play 3-2-3-1-1:

Robinson (dodgy keeper!)

Terry, Ferdinand, Carragher (or A Cole, dependent on opposition)

Hargreaves/Carrick and Beckham (one to break up, one to pass forward, and Beckham isn't bad at covering the right back position)

Lampard, Gerrard, J Cole (from left to right - that's where Lampard plays for Chelsea; can't see any other way of getting L&G to function together - they HAVE to have players behind them)

Rooney - free to float like a buttefly etc, exercise his genius

Owen - because he will convert a higher percentage of chances than any other striker we've got, and if we avoid the long ball strategy (which this formation should then he will thrive much more on the through balls). He also needs to play himself into form. Form is temporary, class is permanent.

If we go behind, we take off the defensive midfielder and bring on one of Lennon/Crouch/Downing to ask the different questions of a defence. The thing is, the front five - liberated to actually play together and attack - has a huge number of goals in them. It would certainly have done better than the shambles against T&T (although I can only say that with confidence because I am aware of how little that is saying!). Sven won't do it though - he's much too conservatively wedded to 442.

I didn't see the Spain match, but of the teams I have seen, Argentina seem awesome. Could easily be an Argentina-Spain final. I'm glad England wouldn't meet Argentina before a final....


Wednesday, June 14, 2006


Seymour M Hersh: Chain of Command

Outstanding and compelling argument. A book which simply must be read in order to be informed on the torture controversies and related matters.

Having spent so long researching the more loopy 9/11 theories, it was really refreshing to read this, which is stamped with both humanity and sanity. It also, in part, undermines the 9/11 conspiracy theories (why would Perle wait until 2 months after 9/11 to set up a company that would benefit if he was involved in planning it?). It has made me want to do another long post about 9/11 and US foreign policy, because I think I am now shifting quite strongly against the conspiracy theories (not completely, but for all practical purposes). So watch this space.

Also - last point - very interesting discussion at the end about Israel and the Kurds, which was an aspect to the current world situation I hadn't appreciated. Gives more weight to this article (HT Global Guerrillas) which I read a couple of days ago, and would recommend.

Thom Hartmann: The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight

I bought this because of the title - a beautiful description of what Peak Oil is about - but I was rather surprised, and stimulated, by the book itself. Instead of being the normal dry and technical discussion, it was a much more spiritual take, very New Agey in its elevation of 'Older traditions' despite being avowedly Christian (the quote on the front from Neale Donald Walsch should have given the game away) and asked some of the important questions. What I found stimulating was that it is addressing the Peak Oil issues in the way that I want to explore, ie as a spiritual crisis. Where I disagree with Hartmann is that his analysis is, frankly, theologically flabby. We need to get much more rigorous about the roots of our crisis - for I completely agree that it is precisely a spiritual crisis - and we can only do that by rolling up our theological sleeves.

Stimulating though.

Let us be human (quotations)

I first came across the quote in Paul Johnston's book 'Wittgenstein and Moral Philosophy' (still one of the best books on Wittgenstein). The quote itself comes from his notes collected in Culture and Value, and was written in 1937, in the midst of discussions about Kierkegaard and the gospels.

The quotation from Kierkegaard that Johnston couples it with is this:
It is from this side, in the first instance, that objection may be made to modern philosophy; not that it has a mistaken presupposition, but that it has a comical presupposition, occasioned by its having forgotten, in a sort of world-historical absent-mindedness, what it means to be a human being. Not indeed, what it means to be a human being in general; for this is the sort of thing that one might even induce a speculative philosopher to agree to; but what it means that you and I and he are human beings, each one for himself. (Concluding Unscientific Postscript: 109)
There are a number of other remarks from Wittgenstein (I know much more about Wittgenstein than Kierkegaard) that I would link in to the theme. One of the most important is his reference to William James, a philosopher who influenced Wittgenstein greatly. In a conversation with Drury he was recommending James; Drury said 'I always enjoy reading William James. He is such a human person' and Wittgenstein responded 'That is what makes him a good philosopher. He was a real human being'.

The other one on my mind at the moment is this:
It is very remarkable that we should be inclined to think of civilization - houses, streets, cars etc. - as distancing man from his source, from what is sublime, infinite and so on. Our civilized environment, along with the trees and plants in it, then seems as though it were cheaply wrapped in cellophane and isolated from everything great, from God, as it were. That is a remarkable picture that forces itself on us. (Culture and Value, 1946 (NB Fergus Kerr's translation))
That is what I shall be exploring and writing about.


Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Let us be human

A line of thought, which I have spent much of my holiday pondering, flowing from this post and the various Peak Oil/ Global Warming/ World War Three lines of thought (as referenced in the previous post). Which is simply this: Let us be human.

A remark of Wittgenstein's, riffing a remark of Kierkegaard's.

We have forgotten what it means to be human, we have embraced the less than human, and to be restored, we must contemplate the One who is fully human.

I think that's what I will restructure my book around. And I will trial the sequence of thoughts through the next Learning Church program from the beginning of October.

And it will be hopeful.

On being too far ahead

How to Save the World: "There is nothing more to be said. There is nothing to debate. Acknowledge with a wry smile that our numbers, those of us who see Too Far Ahead, are growing. We are heading for a wall, and it is far too late to brake, but the worst part of the hideous messy crash is still a half-century or more away."

The Valley of Achor

Morning Prayer today had a reading from Chapter 7 of Joshua, that I have been pondering (full text of the chapter here) .

In part, I ponder it because of the question of God's wrath, which is a theme for me at the moment (see here). The basic premise of the story is: God has delivered Jericho into the hands of the Israelites, and everything in the city has to be 'devoted' to the Lord. In other words, everything alive (men, women, young, old, cattle, donkeys) has to be killed (6.21), and all the gold and silver has to be committed to the Lord's Treasury. However, one of the Israelites, Achan, covets some of the treasure, steals it, and buries it in his tent. The Lord takes offence at this, and the next Israelite attack on the locals fails, which causes the 'hearts of the people [to melt] and become like water'. After a process of elimination, Achan admits to the theft, and the story continues "Then all Israel stoned him, and after they had stoned the rest [ie the stolen goods], they burned them. Over Achan they heaped up a large pile of rocks, which remains to this day. Then the Lord turned from his fierce anger. Therefore that place has been called the Valley of Achor [trouble] ever since".

The god portrayed in this story is a tribal deity, one who demands obedience and offers rewards in line with such obedience - those rewards being principally the military victories sought by the invading Israelite army (and the demands often being the genocide of the existing inhabitants). How does a Christian understand such a passage? The only way forward, it seems to me, would be to allow for some sort of growth in awareness on the part of the Israelite community, that is, that the Israelite community shared the common understandings of the time (tribal deities) but that within the Israelite consciousness - uniquely - there evolved something which transcended that partial understanding (the evolution can be tracked most clearly in the accounts of the exile). Put differently, a Christian cannot understand the instructions given in this passage as being 'divine' (in the sense that, say, John 15 would count as divine). I would understand these stories as telling us as much, or more, about the psychology of the Israelite community, the harshness of their existence, and the way in which their religious language sanctioned that community behaviour.

What we have here, it seems to me, is a vivid description of a scapegoating process. The Israelites have suffered a military setback - something which is in tension with their guiding beliefs about their god's guidance - and so in order to reconcile the situation, there must be a culprit found, who can be blamed, and then destroyed, thus restoring the status quo ante, and making atonement between the people and their god.

Of course, I have Girard at the back of my mind in making these comments. Most of all, I have the interpretation of the empty tomb, which I came across last Easter, and which I find tremendously fruitful. For the Israelites stone the scapegoat to death, and the body is covered over with a heap of stones - stones representing the death of the scapegoat, and also, symbolically, the communal guilt at murdering one of the community. The community of Israel continually misunderstands the living God, who is not to be found in such processes, and despite the teachings of Moses and the Prophets, they are unable to hear what God wishes to say. So God eventually incarnates his Word - and that Word is then scapegoated and buried under stone. The point of the empty tomb - the rolling back of the stone - is to overthrow that process - to say that God is never aligned with 'righteous violence' and the casting of stones.

The clash for the Christian is how to reconcile the God who is buried under stone with the god who advocates stoning - all the time whilst avoiding the temptation of Marcionism. The only way I have found that makes sense is to understand the Bible organically evolving, as a record of a dawning awareness of the nature of God - over against the gods - and as a record, therefore, which contains 'error' - that words are placed in the mouth of god which are not faithful reflections of the nature of God. The only way in which this can be structured is through making Christ the determining factor in interpretation - those elements of the Old Testament which are in tune with Christ are authentically His voice; those elements which are discordant are to be understood as part of the context within which His speech was originally heard. To make each part of the text equivalent in authority - either across the Old Testament, or between Old and New Testaments - is, to my mind, to do violence to the spiritual integrity of both text and reader.

Either we follow the god who executes, or we follow the God who is executed. That choice is also our πειρασμον (Mt 6.13).

George M Marsden: Fundamentalism and American Culture

This was an outstandingly good book, not surprising given the amount of scholarly praise it has received. I read most of it for my Fundamentalism talks in the Learning Church, and managed to finish it in Germany.

Three points.

First, the 'Babylonian captivity' of Fundamentalism, by which I mean the way in which it accepts a Modern, scientific framework of understanding, is much more explicit in the history than I realised. I assumed that it was simply picked up by osmosis from the surrounding culture, but it was, instead, something explicitly argued for, most particularly by the Princeton school of theologians. The original Fundamentalists objected to (for example) Darwinism principally on the grounds that it was 'bad science', ie something based upon hypotheses rather than the assessment and classification of 'facts'. The Fundamentalist movement gave primacy to a Baconian understanding of science (Newtonian), in which hypotheses and speculations were downplayed. The Bible was seen as a reliable source of facts, and the scientific approach was simply to aggregate these facts systematically. It seems to me that Fundamentalism can only persist through a more or less wilful self-deception, a desire not to investigate their own historical roots. Arguing with a Fundamentalist about specific points (eg evolution) won't get anywhere, because the presuppositions are different - but NOT a presupposition to do with the place of Scripture; rather a presupposition about the nature of science. Fundamentalism has reified eighteenth century science, and given it an authority equivalent to that of Scripture. That is its principal idolatry. It may be the case that the one thing likely to free a Fundamentalist from their error is to study the history of science - for then the inheritance that Fundamentalism has received would be obvious, and its inherent lack of Scriptural authority clear.

Second, and related to my post about incarnation I was rather pleased to see many of my own perspectives articulated by the conservative evangelicals as they debated with the Fundamentalists. In particular - and a rather pointed skewering of Daniel's 'Barth-world' comment - was this discussion about Augustus Strong, "the leading conservative Baptist theologian of the time... president of Rochester Theological Seminary":
While holding a high view of Biblical authority, Strong's starting point was that truth was not doctrinal or propositional, but rather 'the truth is a personal Being, and that Christ himself is the Truth'. Strong attributed the intellectual difficulties in the church to a view of truth that was too abstract and literal. People mistakenly supposed that the perfection attributed to the deity could be attributed equally to statements about Christ made by the church, the ministry, the Bible, or a creed. 'A large part of the unbelief of the present day,' he said, 'has been caused by the unwarranted identification of these symbols and manifestations with Christ himself. Neither the church nor ministry, Bible or creed, is perfect. To discover imperfection in them is to prove that they are not in themselves divine'. Strong rejected very explicitly the idea of Scripture as inerrant and in his influential Systematic Theology eventually dropped language that might even suggest such a conclusion. Statements similar to Strong's could readily be found elsewhere among Baptist conservatives...
That is exactly my position - strange to think I might be aligned with Baptist conservatives (smile).

Finally, and most pertinent to our present day travails, was the way in which Marsden describes the politicisation of Fundamentalism, in terms of the desire to attain a 'pure church', and the various manoeuvrings undertaken by the Fundamentalists to establish themselves in positions of power. Marsden is clear that the one thing which prevented a Fundamentalist takeover of mainstream denominations like the Presbyterians was the Scopes trial - the Fundamentalist mindset was brought up into the light, rather than being kept hidden away (as most religious debates - thankfully! - are); and once brought into the light, it withered under sustained ridicule. This seems to be the most salient difference between the Fundamentalist and conservative evangelical perspective (as I described): the Fundamentalist perspective is exclusive, and actively seeks to repudiate different forms of Christianity; the conservative evangelical perspective is inclusive, and is prepared to tolerate difference. You could say that the latter has a more fully developed understanding of adiaphora.

A scholarly book - very 'dry' - but not difficult to read, and absolutely fascinating. Highly recommended.


Thursday, June 08, 2006


This'll be the last TBTM until Tuesday, as I am off to Germany for a long weekend (part 2 of my holiday).

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Vocation, vocation, vocation!

I loved this: Vocation has to do with saving your soul – not by acquiring a secure position of holiness but by learning to shed the unreality that suffocates the life of the soul…
Vocation is, you could say, what’s left when all the games have stopped

They look so New Romantic

U2 // get set for summer '82 // (HT U2 sermons)

Mystical Theology and the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy

This is an essay I wrote seven or eight years ago, for my MA at Heythrop. I was looking at it for my last post, and thought it might be worth posting on the blog (if I can work out the HTML!!)

A comparison of the theological perspectives of Mark McIntosh and Catherine Pickstock


In recent years Blackwell publishers have brought out a number of attractively presented works by young[1] theologians, in their series ‘Challenges in Contemporary Theology’. In this essay I would like to examine two contributions to that series: Mystical Theology[2] by Mark McIntosh, and After Writing[3], by Catherine Pickstock, looking at how each writer talks about religious experience and the knowledge of God. For McIntosh, the medieval era saw a division between spirituality and theology which impoverished both, and his work is concerned to articulate a position, deeply Trinitarian, from which a reconciliation might proceed. Catherine Pickstock, whilst also concerned with the damage caused by intellectual developments in the middle ages, advances the thesis that ‘liturgical language is the only language that makes sense’ and that ‘the event of transubstantiation in the Eucharist is the condition of possibility for all human meaning’. As such, it would seem that McIntosh is the more theoretical work, whilst Pickstock is more concerned with the practice of faith. My intention in this paper is to show that, in fact, the reverse is the case, and that it is the perspective of McIntosh that most fruitfully opens up the possibility of theological investigation of mystical texts and speech. I will begin my paper by expounding the overall argument of each work in turn, before ending the paper with some remarks giving my own perspective on this issue.

The argument of Mystical Theology
McIntosh’s purpose in writing his work is explicitly to foster a reunion of theology and spirituality. McIntosh locates the source for the division between spirituality and theology in the late medieval turn to experience, which he associates (ironically) with Bernard of Clairvaux[4]. This turn to experience led to a shift from a concern with the divine, as mediated through the teaching of the mystics, to a concern with what the mystics themselves experienced, which McIntosh calls experientialism. He writes:
‘Mystical writers again and again warn against paying much attention to religious feelings or preoccupation with various experiential states. Such writers do this by using imagery of withdrawal, darkness, inner abandonment and so on. But their interpreters very often mistake this imagery for a kind of literal report of, or prescription for, actual religious experience. The language of negativity in spiritual texts, intended as a critique of all religious experience, is read as encouragement to pursue the achievement of negative experiences. If a mystic said for example that, “Darkness is the only way to God”, the experientialist interpreter takes this to mean that one must seek some inner state of ‘darkness’ rather than hearing it as a warning against reliance on particular beliefs, aspiration, feeling, or idols of any kind whatsoever in the encounter with the living God.’[5]

McIntosh’s contention is that this turn to existentialist interpretation encouraged the divorce between theology and spirituality. For McIntosh, spirituality without theology is disorientated, deprived ‘of some stable communal goal and reference, and hence render[ed] susceptible to the idols, compulsions, or fears of the individual…every spiritual consciousness must be contextualized and appraised in terms of its context’[6]. Whereas theology without spirituality (which is the primary concern of his book) becomes abstract and ‘may not only lose contact with important sources of religious reflection but may also lose the proper skills for speaking of the doctrines of Christianity – doctrines conceived not simply as propositions for analysis but as living mysteries to be encountered’[7]. Ultimately, for McIntosh, ‘when theology is divorced from spirituality it is likely to begin talking about a different god, a deity who depends on theological performance for vitality and verisimilitude’[8]

The correct way to proceed with theology is through a reconciliation of both spirituality and academic theology, which McIntosh describes as mystical theology. He points out that for writers such as Augustine and Gregory of Nyssa ‘love and knowledge are at the highest levels utterly coinherent’[9]. This is to be achieved through the path of contemplation. McIntosh refers approvingly to the understanding of Richard of St. Victor, ‘contemplation is a free and clear vision of the mind fixed upon the manifestation of wisdom in suspended wonder’[10].

Three aspects of this understanding are brought out: firstly, contemplation is enhanced lucidity, not a tentative exploration through an intellectual fog; secondly, intellect is fully engaged in contemplation, but only as part of a wider apprehension; and thirdly, the focus is on something outside the individual, an external wisdom, which the contemplative seeks to participate in. Contemplation should seek to enable Christian believers to develop and move forward on their path to God – as such it is unavoidably confessional and doctrinal, for doctrine, correctly understood, is ‘a language for describing and participating in this encounter with God, as an itinerary giving an indication of the major landmarks along the journey.’[11] McIntosh argues that ‘the inherent momentum of theology is towards contemplation, and
this is no abdication of academic rigour or the critical function; the most rigorous and critical turn theology takes may flow from the passionate desire to know the living truth’[12] . Therefore, ‘theology as a form of knowing and speaking of God must in some manner follow this path itself’, that is, be transformed by love.[13]

McIntosh then spends time considering how to interpret mystical texts, where he briefly considers questions of meaning. The texts bequeathed to the Christian tradition by the mystical writers are to be considered, following Ricoeur, as ‘meaning events’, whereby ‘The patterns of the mystical text draw its readers into a play of meaning that re-structures the readers’perceptions’ [14]. ‘In the interaction of text and reader, the reader’s process of understanding is drawn out of its usual opposition of self and other and the analysis of the other as a manipulable object for the controlling self’[15]. McIntosh explicitly parallels the experience of reading a mystical text with the experience of Jesus’s life, which ‘might well be seen as the matrix and categorical framework for the unfolding event of Christian mystical speech – including the drive towards meaning and understanding’[16]. ‘The meaningfulness of mystical texts, is, in other words, less like the meaningfulness of propositions and more like the call to take up one’s cross and follow Jesus into the apophasis of Gethsemane and Golgotha’[17]. This leads to the reinforcing of McIntosh’s earlier conclusion, where he sought to show ‘the inherent integrity of ‘Christian spirituality and theology, and the degree to which the mystical journey underlies and even generates whatever is most truthful in theological perceptivity’[18]

The remainder of McIntosh’s work is a development from this starting point. He considers the perspectives of Rahner and von Balthasar on the division between spirituality and theology, and his argument culminates in a section of systematic theology, where he considers questions of Trinitarian theology, Christology and anthropology. As an interim conclusion, I would wish to emphasise the distinction that McIntosh draws between the style of contemporary academic theology (where ‘my theological exposition of God may have all the liveliness of a laboratory specimen’[19]) and the poetic and lucid writing of the mystics (where mystical texts ‘are linguistic performances, and it is the very patterning of their language which allows them to draw the reader into a new perceptivity’[20]).

The Argument of After Writing
Pickstock begins her thesis with an examination of the Phaedrus, a mid to late Platonic dialogue. The argument is conducted through an analysis and rejection of the Derridean interpretation of this work, that is, Pickstock contends against Derrida that Plato assumed that language was primarily doxological in character, ‘ultimately concerned with praise of the divine’[21], and therefore liturgical. According to this view, Socrates ‘attacks sophistry not on the grounds of its linguistic mediation of truth, but because of its undoxological motivation’[22]. Sophism is therefore identified with the ‘practices of demythologisers... who are concerned only with superficial matters rather than substantive content’[23]. Through Part 1 of the book Pickstock traces a line of descent from this sophistry through to modern secularism, showing how, for example, the Cartesian elevation of rationality, with all its consequences, owes its origin to ‘the beginnings of a technocratic, manipulative, dogmatically rationalist, anti-erotic, anti-corporeal and homogenising society undergirded by secularity and pure immanence’[24], against which Socrates contended. According to Pickstock it is this move away from a transcendent understanding of language which prepares the way for secular modernism: ‘“sophistic” immanentism is the ultimate foundation of these illusions’[25].

Pickstock’s argument then proceeds through a ‘transition’ where she argues that the liturgical polity was ‘sundered from within by an excess piety’, principally through the work of Duns Scotus (d. 1308). For Pickstock, Scotus is something of a bête noir, who reintroduces sophistic thinking into the medieval West. The following characteristics of Scotist thought, as presented by Pickstock, are key:

a) the primacy of rationality: ‘And since the “possible”, as distinct from the “actual” is by definition only realised in thought, or in some prior or virtual realm, the place given to the “possible” by Scotus inaugurates the logical basis for privileging epistemology over ontology, and the rational over the actual, thereby opening the way for modern metaphysics’[26]
b)the elevation of divine sovereignty: ‘The supremacy of God’s will, according to Duns Scotus, is such that it can realise all possibilities, even those which contradict the actual necessities of the particular created order in which we live’[27];
c) the consequent change in our understanding of the miraculous: ‘Scotus’ departure from analogia entis, which distances God from the world, precipitates a necessary preparedness to undergo at any moment a radically discontinuous and arbitrary alteration caused by God, whose presence in the world is now viewed more ontically, in terms of a willingness to intervene. The miraculous is no longer to be found in the analogical resemblances of the physical order, but in the possible radical discontinuities of that order’[28].

The second part of Pickstock’s work is concerned with liturgy, for ‘the human subject is constituted (or fully central to itself) only in the dispossessing act of praise’[29], and as such, the nature of the liturgy is crucial for the formation of our human and Christian nature. Pickstock argues that the reforms of Vatican II made fundamental mistakes in understanding the Eucharistic liturgy[30], and fell short of what was needed if liturgy is to stand out against the sophistic culture dominant in the contemporary West. She writes, ‘A successful liturgical revision would have to involve a revolutionary re-invention of language and practice which would challenge the structures of our modern world, and only thereby restore real language and action as liturgy’[31]. Pickstock therefore engages in a detailed analysis of the pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic Liturgy, with a view to showing that many of the ‘accretions’ and ‘additions’ found in the Latin Mass actually functioned to emphasise spiritual truths, for example the sense of time as something which returns cyclically, as opposed to being ‘spatialised’ and linear. This can be seen as the primary aim of her work: to show how the Latin mass expresses a non-sophistic understanding of reality, such that it becomes possible ‘to restore meaning to language …and the optimum site of this restoration is the integration of word and action in the event of the Eucharist.’[32] Pickstock has repudiated the postmodern account of signs (Part one) and now articulates a theological conception of signification: ‘the theological sign includes and repeats the mystery it receives and to which it is offered, and as such, it reveals the nature of that divine mystery as gift, relationality, and perpetuity. Such a sign is not a terminal product which stops at its own signification
This sign disseminates the tradition into which it is born, for it is configured as a history, a ritual, a liturgy, a narrative, a desire, and a community’[33] Consequently, for Pickstock, ‘The words of Consecration “This is my body” therefore, far from being problematic in their meaning, are the only words which certainly have meaning, and lend this meaning to all other words[34]. It is here that liturgy consummates philosophy, for the meaning which philosophy strives towards can only be found in the drama and action of the Eucharistic feast.

At this point it is necessary to bring McIntosh and Pickstock into a closer dialogue, in order to concentrate on the relevance of their work for understanding how it is possible to talk about God. A number of correspondences suggest themselves:

a) Firstly, both McIntosh and Pickstock agree that the late medieval period saw a decline or corruption in Western Christianity. McIntosh explores that corruption through the turn to experience, Pickstock through the development of Scotist thought (drawing on de Lubac, amongst others);

b) Secondly, it would seem plausible to consider Scotist thought as a prime example of the type of academic thought which McIntosh is concerned to criticise, which gave rise to the concern with propositional adequacy rather than devotional fruitfulness. There is therefore a common distaste for the analytical mode of understanding in both writers.

c) Thirdly, both McIntosh and Pickstock see theological understanding as determined by membership of the church community; that is, it is impossible to understand religious speech apart from participation within the life of the community. For Pickstock this extends throughout the wider life of the community, which she sees as being formed in the Eucharist, whereas McIntosh sees it more in terms of a pattern of discipleship.

There are also some ways in which each author is able to ‘correct’ the account of the other in important ways. Pickstock’s emphasis upon the liturgy as the location of meaning and the foundation for Christian understanding could usefully be incorporated into McIntosh’s account. McIntosh, despite his protestations[35] concentrates primarily on the individual context; not, to be sure, on the experience of the individual, but on the understanding and development of the individual as they learn from mystical texts. More importantly, however, McIntosh stands as a corrective to Pickstock in terms of the clarity with which he presents his case. This is a substantive point as much as a stylistic one. McIntosh emphasises the lucidity of contemplation as the goal of theological endeavour, and he implicitly argues for integrity between the medium of religious teaching and the message which that teaching is intending to convey – hence the discussion of poetics and hermeneutics. This is a position which would seem harmonious with the stance which Pickstock takes in her work, where the form of the liturgy has importance apart from any ‘content’ which might be conveyed through it.

Yet it seems to me that there is still a residual ‘Scotist’ tendency in the argument of After Writing. This is betrayed first through the method of her argument which is characterised by obscure vocabulary and dense argumentation – ‘The only cohesion obtained for the persons and the events of Salvation History with our own “event” of proclamation now relies upon pre-established knowledge and the implicature of temporal iconicity whereby one infers the unified chronicity of the fabula from the sequential position of events in the text’[36]. There is also a flavour of academic intimidation and confrontation (‘One must indeed, fervently join forces with scholars like Henri de Lubac…’[37]) which, whilst not academically problematic, is open to criticism from a point of view such as McIntosh’s, which stresses the integrity of theology with its spiritual roots. Most fundamental, however, is the way in which Pickstock’s argument is grounded within a particular academic debate, and that the success or otherwise of her argument in favour of liturgical reform seems to depend upon a view of language. Pickstock’s argument is that ‘only a realistic construal of the event of the Eucharist allows us to ground a view of language which does not evacuate the body, and does not give way to necrophilia’[38] - as such she gives the view of language a role in grounding the rejection of necrophilia. Consequently the foundation of her position lies with an intellectual and propositional point. She has advanced a theory of meaning (signification) and on the basis of this she builds her justification of liturgy. The roots of this perspective, with Pickstock, lie in her adherence to Platonism. Her argument is that Plato operated with a doxological view of language, and that a recovery of this is essential for the health of Christian society. Pickstock even goes so far as to say that ‘Plato will already have anticipated or hinted at’[39] the answers that Christianity can offer, and this is why liturgy ‘consummates’ philosophy, for it brings it to completion. As such, it is surely an example of ‘theological performance’[40] which McIntosh so rightly criticises.

The impact of working from this foundation can be seen by examining Pickstock’s thesis that outside the mass there can be no meaning. This can be understood as saying 1) the mass exemplifies the deepest meaning of Christianity, but also 2) non-Christian liturgy (and non-Christian language) is meaningless. It would appear that Pickstock is arguing for the latter, but her work is structured so that this is presented as a philosophical claim, not a religious (or theological) claim. As such it is a claim which lies open to severe questioning. Pickstock is arguing from a confessional position, and as such there is a further distinction that can be made between her perspective and that of McIntosh. For McIntosh remains open to insights from non-Christian traditions, seeing them as ‘likely to become some of the most significant dialogue partners in Christianity’s future’[41]. Pickstock’s position precludes such conversation from ever beginning, and as such her outlook is itself guilty of the ‘totalising’ impulse which she so rightly castigates in Scotist thought.

This essay has been concerned with how it is possible to talk about God – how religious experience, whether through that of the mystics (McIntosh) or through the liturgy (Pickstock), can shape our understanding of religious truth. McIntosh argues that the experience of reading a mystical text interrogates our understandings, and opens up the possibilities of seeing the world differently, they ‘re-structure’ our understanding. Mystical texts are therefore less descriptive of a religious event than precipitative of a religious event. For Pickstock, liturgy has a similar role – we are shaped by the liturgy itself and any language that we speak is ultimately referred back to the drama of the eucharistic liturgy, and the re-narration of the founding story of Christ. However, for Pickstock, this understanding is dependent upon a particular intellectual approach to the truth, and in fact, it is through the path of the intellect that we come to be aware of the truth. She writes: ‘only the dialectician, who holds steadfastly to the good, is in a position to differentiate and to discern the true from the false’[42]. Pickstock elevates rationality and dialectics into an idol, making intellectual insight the foundation for spiritual insight, and as such, from a perspective like McIntosh’s, her work is profoundly unmystical. The project of finding a liturgical consummation for philosophy seems intrinsically to raise philosophical endeavours to an inappropriate level, for consummation requires some level of commonality between the partners, and, if McIntosh is correct, then the consummation required is between spirituality and theology – philosophy is not invited into the conversation.

I am persuaded by McIntosh’s account of mystical theology – that our understanding of God needs to be integrated with spiritual insights if it is to be intellectually fruitful. I do not think that it is possible to prove the truth of Christianity; that endeavour in itself places reason in an idolatrous position. Consequently it seems to me that the academic process, when developed apart from spiritual nurturing, is intrinsically inimical to the aim of explaining Christianity, a point well made by McIntosh. The apparatus of scholarship - marshalling argument and evidence, establishing sources, being judicious and reserved in what can be said – seems, when applied to theological investigations, to implicitly depend upon the idea that Christianity can be proved, as if, were we only to be careful enough and scholarly enough then we would be able to establish Christianity on a firm foundation. This is to search for certainty in the wrong place. This form of academic theology depends upon a distancing from the material being discussed, a distancing which has its roots in scientific methods. Yet as McIntosh clearly argues, drawing on the traditional perspective of the church, ‘love and knowledge are at the highest levels utterly coinherent’, and he quotes Augustine approvingly, ‘The soul wants to know God more and more because it loves him, and loves him because it knows that he is supreme Truth and Beauty. Love and knowledge of God are united in the kind of knowledge we have of God, namely wisdom, sapientia.’[43] It seems to me that this love must be for not only the source of wisdom itself, which gives rise to whatever insights might be conveyed, but also for those to whom a writer wishes to convey those insights. As such the language used is of first importance. As McIntosh puts it, mystical language (which is the only theological language with final validity) ‘is describing in a simple or direct sense neither God nor the mystic’s experiences but evoking an interpretive framework within which the readers of the text may come to recognize and participate in their own encounters with God.’[44] To my mind, McIntosh succeeds in this most important of theological tasks, while Pickstock, although not without important insights, falls short.


I should say, to be precise, ‘by predominantly young theologians’ – one of the best works in the series is by Rowan Williams, On
Christian Theology

Mystical Theology, Mark A
McIntosh, Blackwell, 1998

After Writing, Catherine Pickstock,
Blackwell, 1998

Mystical Theology, pp 65-69. I say ironically, as this would be the last thing that Bernard would have wished to see – a point that McIntosh makes.

Mark McIntosh, Mystical Theology,
Blackwell Publishers, 1998, p 23.

Mystical Theology, p14.

Mystical Theology, p15.


Mystical Theology, p70.

Mystical Theology p11. McIntosh himself is taking this quotation from Louth, Theology and Spirituality, Fairacres Oxford: SLG Press, 1978

Mystical Theology, p40.

Mystical Theology, p33.

Mystical Theology, p29.

Mystical Theology, p131.

Mystical Theology, p132.

Mystical Theology, p132.

Mystical Theology, p135.

Mystical Theology, p136.

Mystical Theology, p15.

Mystical Theology, p142.

After Writing, p37.


After Writing, p5.

After Writing p48.

After Writing p49.

After Writing, p127

After Writing, p132.

After Writing, pp131-132.

After Writing, p177.

After Writing pp175-176 give a summary.

After Writing, p171.

After Writing p 253.

After Writing, p267.

After Writing, p263, my emphasis.

For example Mystical Theology, p7, ‘Spirituality in this early Christian sense is inherently mutual, communal, practical and oriented towards the God who makes self known precisely in this new pattern of life called church’.

After Writing, p206, footnote 96.

After Writing, p172.

After Writing, pxv

After Writing, p270

Mystical Theology, p15.

Mystical Theology, p5.

After Writing, p17.

Mystical Theology, p70.

Mystical Theology, p124.