Thursday, August 31, 2006

Learning Church 2006 – 2007

Learning Church 2006 – 2007
Let us be human: Prophecy, Peak Oil and the Path For the Faithful

7th October Overture: Jeremiah
14th Peak Oil Revisited
21st The accelerating crises of our time
28th Red or Blue Pill? Idolatry and science
4th November Deuteronomy and the Wrath of God
11th The Apocalyptic Imagination
18th No session
25th Biblical stewardship
2nd December No session (WM PCC)
9th Amos and poverty
16th Ezekiel, Sayyid Qutb and foreign policy
23rd No session (Christmas)
[30th Christmas]
[6th January Epiphany]
13th No session (Sam on paternity leave)
20th Isaiah and right worship
27th The tradition of the virtues
3rd February Faith, praxis and schism
10th Living in the Kingdom
17th No session (WM PCC)
24th Let us be human (summary)

Dates and topics are subject to change.
There will likely be a further sequence after Easter.


And I came to believe in a power much higher than I
I came to believe that I needed help to get by
In childlike faith I gave in and gave him a try
And I came to believe in a power much higher than I

(Johnny Cash)


"I believe that one of the things Christianity says is that sound doctrines are all useless. That you have to change your life. (Or the direction of your life.)"
Wittgenstein, 1946

Wednesday, August 30, 2006


‘Christianity is not based on a historical truth; rather, it offers us a (historical) narrative and says: now believe! But not, believe this narrative with the belief appropriate to a historical narrative, rather: believe through thick and thin, which you can do only as a result of a life. Here you have a narrative, don’t take the same attitude to it as you take to other historical narratives! Make a quite different place in your life for it.’

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The next USAF target? Bradford....

Telegraph | News | Britain 'is now biggest security threat to US': "a 'successful' attack by British Muslims on an American target, would be likely to spur an immediate response"

Britain will dissolve into its component units and shift firmly into the European sphere. See also this article from Niall Ferguson, who is always interesting.


'…it is absurd to say “Science has proved that there are no miracles”. The truth is that the scientific way of looking at a fact is not the way to look at it as a miracle’ (Wittgenstein, 1929)

Monday, August 28, 2006


Evensong sermon 27 August 2006

I wonder how many of you reflect on experiences in your early childhood that have shaped your life ever since. When I was ten I was made ‘head boy’ in my primary school – it was the sort of school that had ‘head boys’ – and full of my few found importance I began to give orders to my class mates. As you can imagine they resisted this, in one case violently and forcibly, and ever since I have felt extremely inhibited about exercising authority. Yet some six months ago I was very struck by this verse from this evening’s text: “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that will be of no advantage to you.” (Hebrews 13.17)

A remarkable text. I have been mulling over this text rather a lot in the last six months or so – some of you may even remember that I quoted it in my letter to the congregation after Easter. It represents something that rubs against the grain, both of my own nature and what I have absorbed from our culture, for it offends against the modern idols of freedom and choice – but the more time goes on, the more authority I recognise in it.

This question of obedience has become problematised in our society, partly because it has rightly been seen as something which can be corrupted – one of the conclusions of the Nuremberg trials. Yet the rejection of blind obedience does seem to me to have gone way too far, and conscientious obedience, obedience from a principled acceptance and informed understanding – this too seems to have been ruled out of court, and that now seems to be a mistake. Rightly understood, the traditional understanding of obedience has never undermined the priority of individual conscience – for conscience is paramount in both protestant and catholic traditions – but this has become cheapened and reduced in modern life, where there is now a manifest idolatry of personal preference. The conscience of the christian is informed by prayer and study and the development of the virtues of patience and prudence – it is not part of the idolatrous elevation of individual willpower that so scars our modern society. To cut to the quick: Jesus is not a choice for us to make between others – it’s not as if we are in the supermarket and we make our selection from the different brands – a bit of new age here, a bit of buddhism there – that perspective still places the power of choice within us, and it doesn’t belong there. For we don’t choose christ, he chooses us – and that means we submit to christ – that’s a phrase from the baptism liturgy – submission and obedience are our proper responses, they are a necessary component of our Christian path – and that is how we bear fruit – not through a concentration upon our choice for Christ, for he chooses us - he says ‘you did not choose me, I chose you, and appointed you to bear fruit’.

There is a fine example of this in the liberty of the monastic life, where all power of choice is given up – a great freedom comes – the weight of the world and decision is lifted, which is what I believe Jesus talks about when he says that his burden is easy and his yoke is light – if we genuinely allow Jesus to be lord in our lives, if we let his spirit make our decisions, then life becomes much simpler and more peaceful. After all Jesus speaks often about the necessity of obedience.

In the Rule of St Benedict, the Abbot is given strong authority, over the monks, but with the clear proviso that he will be answerable to God for the state of the souls in his care, which is also picked up in our text this evening: “They keep watch over you as men who must give an account.” This is one of those passages of Scripture that are sharper than a two edged sword, cutting both ways, for it flags up the essential role of the pastor, what is meant by the traditional title of curate – the cure of souls, the GP for the soul – that’s what it means that those in authority will have to give an account of their ministry. That we will be held to account for the health of the souls in our care.

The Hebrews passage goes on: Obey them so that their work will be a joy not a burden for that would be of no advantage to you. I have recently joined up with a clergy support group, and I have been very struck by how depressed and despondent so many of my colleagues have become – and I think this question of obedience is relevant, for so many of the battles which clergy have to fight are with the products of the idolatrous worship of individual choice that, even within the church, are rampant and destructive. One of the things that was quoted to me recently is worth sharing: there is a sequence of steps that a pastor goes through as they lose their way: 1. stop their wider reading; 2. their prayer life; 3. their sense of humour; 4. their humanity…

This is such a tragedy, for the work of the pastor, the care of souls, is intensely joyful. To watch a soul heal, and a life then to flourish – that is the most intense privilege, and it is intrinsically a joyful task – when we are enabled to do it. That is what this passage is about – allowing the one who has the responsibility for the care of souls to get on with doing just that.

At the heart of this question, of obedience and freedom, lies the paradox that it is in God’s service that we find our freedom. That is because it is through obedience to God’s calling that we find our true selves, we begin to understand who we most profoundly are – and then we are enabled to become ourselves, where our choices are aligned with God’s will for us. It is about allowing God to be in charge, in particular, to let go of the teaching which our world is saturated with, that our destinies lie in our own hands, that if only we can make the right choices then all will be well – this is the way in which works-righteousness has taken shape today. We live by grace, not by choice. God is in charge.

This is what obedience is ultimately about – it centres on trust, principally trust in God, a trust that even when we make mistakes, even when church leadership makes spectacular mistakes – that God’s will is not thwarted, and that he will succeed in all his good purposes. It is about putting our own perceptions of what is right – even when they are clearly correct – to one side, in order that God’s plans come to fruition. It is when we can accept that that our hearts are set free, and we can attain that peace which the world cannot give, which is God’s intention for us.


What might it look like, this building of human life around the dream of Jesus? An answer to that question can only be the merest sketch, for the reality of it will depend upon a million individual decisions, and certainly there can be no prescription for the Kingdom of God. Yet it seems clear to me that it represents a different utopia, of fraternity and friendship, of camaraderie and common purpose, a perpetual challenge to the values and virtues on which we have constructed our present existence...

Our story is just beginning. We know what we need to do to bring forward the Kingdom of God, and include all of humanity in our common endeavour. What we lack is the motivation. Yet perhaps now that the distractions of theological armageddon can be put to one side, we can concentrate on making the world a better place. We have the time, we have the capability.

Our story is just beginning.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

The Interpreter

Caught this on Sky last night - rather impressive, although it was carried by the actors rather than the plot. What was going on between Penn and Kidman was much more interesting than the propaganda piece about the importance of the UN.


"The truly apocalyptic view of the world is that things do not repeat themselves. It isn't absurd, eg, to believe that the age of science and technology is the beginning of the end for humanity; that the idea of great progress is a delusion, along with the idea that the truth will ultimately be known; that there is nothing good or desirable about scientific knowledge and that mankind, in seeking it, is falling into a trap. It is by no means obvious that this is not how things are."
Wittgenstein, 1947

Saturday, August 26, 2006


I remember much of the astrology that I was obsessed with as a teenager - some of it still hovers in the background of my thinking, even though I think, on the whole, it is spiritually harmful - so I've been watching the debates about Pluto's status as a planet with great interest. Of course, it exposes the pseudo-science pretensions of astrology quite wonderfully, but the psychological and mythological truths which astrology explores (I'm thinking here of Liz Greene and this book in particular) seem to be standing up quite well. For in astrology, Pluto is the lord of the underworld, the dark realm from whence great riches flow. And as well as the links with fascism in the 1930's, and the expanse of state control, there is also a very vivid link with oil culture, which really took off at the same time. And which is now coming to an end - just as Pluto itself recedes back into the nether regions.

So this could be a coincidence. It could be synchronicity. Or it could be a really absurd bit of evidence that there remains some resolutely non-scientific truth in astrology after all.

BTW I like the cartoons at Cox and Forkum - see this one about Pluto!

BTW2 for anyone who has a serious interest in astrology, my vocation experience, which was an utterly terrifying and dreadful confrontation with both God and my id, but which bore great gifts as well, coincided to the day with a final Pluto transit of my natal 10th house Neptune (square natal Sun/Ascendant, opp natal Saturn). Another coincidence, of course.

American Theocracy & Persecution

I read two wholly opposed books on holiday: American Theocracy, by Kevin Phillips, which argues that the United States is a) poised for a serious collapse in its relative power, and therefore b) drifting towards a religious-right fundamentalist government, with shades of fascism; and Persecution, by David Limbaugh, which argues that Christians are being driven out of American life and being forbidden to practice their faith.

Both books were decidedly mixed; I'm not sure I'd recommend either, but I found the experience of reading them sequentially quite valuable.

The Phillips book is a ragbag of condensed journalism, with occasional insights from his area of true expertise (psephology) - and he's persuaded of Peak Oil as well, which marks him up :) He buys into some of the standard anti-Christian arguments with respect to science, though, and his equation of Bush's opposition to stem-cell research with the Spanish Inquisition is just nonsense. It is in fact the idolatry of science that takes its shape as fundamentalism (fundamentalism and aggressive secularism are siamese twins). His overall thesis has some merit however, principally in showing how previous dominant powers have believed themselves to be 'special' and then land on their backsides - eg the Dutch, British and Spanish (wonderful quotes reflecting the sequential delusions on p299 of my edition).

One of the things which counts against Phillips (on b) above) is that it seems perfectly plausible that the US will react against the present Bush administration so strongly (when its incompetence is fully revealed) that it will swing the other way. Which brings me to Limbaugh. I am thoroughly persuaded of the overall argument that Limbaugh makes, ie that contemporary Western society (Anglo-American in the main) is becoming more aggressively anti-Christian. It's a more salient issue in the US than in the UK, because the process has been much more thoroughly established in the UK, and the persistence of the Church of England has covered over the decay, but in the US the Christian community is still both vital and engaged. "What can the theistic Sunday-schools, meeting for an hour once a week, and teaching only a fraction of the children, do to stem the tide of a five-day program of humanistic teaching?" (he's quoting Charles Potter).

However, Limbaugh's understanding of Christianity itself is impoverished - he shares the general amnesia of the American church with regard to Christian tradition, and consequently he plays strongly into the hands of critics like Phillips. For example, he writes "Thus it is no mystery that Christianity is unacceptable to the post-modern paragons of tolerance. For the Christian worldview holds that the one and only God objectively intervened (and intervenes) in history and that its truth claims are absolutely valid and open to rational, empirical investigation. Aquinas, for one, would have no truck with that. (Interesting how even now the echoes of what Marsden described resound in the American debate.) And it is particularly difficult to take a writer seriously who begins one chapter (11) with the words "America is the greatest, freest nation in the history of the world." That said, his chapter 11 I found to be the best of the book, talking about the theological underpinnings of the American democratic tradition, which I had suspected but never seen chapter and verse on. (Strangely enough, it was confirmed by a Guardian article that I read the next day - see here. The Guardian supports the views of the US religious right! Who disbelieves in miracles now?)

So, any conclusions? Principally confirmation of Strauss and Howe's Fourth Turning thesis which predicted an increase in extremism through the next twenty years, reminiscent of Yeats: "The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity." Beyond that, I remain concerned that the trials that the US are about to experience will provoke an extreme reaction, of a possibly fascist nature, which is Phillips' thesis. Christians have flourished in times of persecution before, so I am much less afraid of what Limbaugh describes - the truth will out in the end. But a corruptly Christian fascism - that prospect is not negligible, and is profoundly alarming. As always, have a read of Chris Locke for more background on that.


…and the human had a dream, and an inspiration. And it walked amongst its fellows, and it told them: "Dream! Dreams shape the world. Dreams create the world anew, every night. Do not dream the world the way it is now…Dream a new world… I do not know how many of us it will take. But we must dream it, and if enough of us dream it, then it will happen. Dreams shape the world."

(From 'A dream of a thousand cats', Neil Gaiman)

Friday, August 25, 2006



Before going on holiday I read Jared Diamond's 'Collapse', which I thought was very good (I've also read his '3rd Chimpanzee' and 'Guns, Germs and Steel' - he's an author whom I rate highly). It was a much more optimistic book than I had expected, in overall tone, but I was disappointed with the end - I felt he could have written more about the options and decisions that we face. Overall, well worth reading, especially for the material about Montana and the Greenland Norse, which were wholly new to me.

NB for a different view to the received wisdom on the Easter Island collapse (which Diamond makes great play of) go here (HT Arts and Letters Daily)


‘God has four people recount the life of his incarnate Son, in each case differently and with inconsistencies. Is this not just in order that the literal word is not taken too seriously, and that the spirit may be given its due? In other words a mediocre account is to be preferred…’
Wittgenstein, 1937

Thursday, August 24, 2006

The Question of Character (a MoQ post)

Something written for the MoQ discussion group a few years ago.

In 'Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance' (ZMM) the Narrator writes:

"I think it's about time to return to the rebuilding of *this* American resource - individual worth. There are political reactionaries who've been saying something close to this for years. I'm not one of them, but to the extent they're talking about real individual worth and not just an excuse for giving more money to the rich, they're right. We *do* need a return to individual integrity, self-reliance and old-fashioned gumption. We really do."

The Narrator is here giving the notion of individual worth a clear degree of Quality, ie it is a good thing, it is something which should be nurtured and affirmed. The question I’d like to explore is: where does this fit in with the MoQ? Or is it something to be left behind?

Consider the literary structure of Lila. We have a correspondence between the four static levels of the MoQ with four characters (so the boat is inorganic, Lila is biological, Rigel is social and Phaedrus is intellectual) and a correspondence between DQ and the river on which the static levels float. Moreover, the way in which the character Phaedrus fails to engage constructively with the character Lila seems to be an acting out of Pirsig’s point that the intellectual level cannot engage directly with the biological level, but must rely upon the social level (Rigel – equals ritual?) in order to cope.

Now this structure is hierarchical. The higher levels are more moral than the lower levels, so that, where there is a conflict between levels, the higher level must be supported (eg intellectuals must support the police). At which level does individual worth fit? Or is it a product of a combination of levels (the forest of static patterns)?

A tension arises for me because if the characters in the novel represent the levels, and the levels are hierarchical, then to accept the MoQ would seem to imply that we should make ourselves more like Phaedrus in terms of our static patterns (which certainly seems to be the aim amongst some members of the community). Yet Pirsig, in Lila’s Child, talks about his displeasure at being identified with the character Phaedrus: "Yes, Phædrus is overwhelmingly intellectual. He is not a mask, really, just a literary character who is easy for me to write about because I share many of his static values a lot of the time. I don't think big self and small self are involved here. My editor wanted me to make him a warmer person in order to increase reader appeal. But making him warmer would have made him more social and weakened the contrasts between himself and Rigel and Lila that were intended to give strength to the story. The fact that everyone seemed to think that Phædrus was me came as an unpleasant surprise after the book was published. I had assumed that everyone would of course know that an author and a character in his book cannot possibly be the same person." Clearly we must distinguish Pirsig the author from Phaedrus the character, and where Phaedrus is an isolated, asocial, possibly amoral metaphysician, Pirsig the author, in his presentation of Phaedrus, is distancing himself from those very things. Elsewhere in Lila’s Child Pirsig quotes a response to an interview: “One interviewer asked me, "Are you really Phaedrus?" The answer was, "Yes I really am Phaedrus. I also really am Richard Rigel. I also really am Lila. I also really am the boat".” In other words, the ‘I’ of Robert Pirsig is composed of all the different levels in greater or lesser patterns of harmony.

This all suggests to me that individual worth in the sense that the Narrator praises in ZMM is not to be identified with one level, but is the product of a combination. However, another strand in Pirsig’s writing tends against that, and might suggest that character is a wholly third level pattern. In the foreword to the 25th anniversary edition of ZMM Pirsig comments that the Narrator is dominated by social values – and, of course, the passage from ZMM that I quoted at the beginning of this post are the words of the Narrator.

First a question: is it legitimate to take the views of the Narrator as being the views of Pirsig? Or is the Narrator another character, in the way that the characters of Lila are, and not to be identified with the author? I don’t know what the answer to that question is.

Second, there is clearly a sense in which the Narrator IS dominated by social values. The Narrator’s personality is one that was constructed whilst in hospital in order to satisfy the doctors that he was not insane, and was therefore at liberty to leave the hospital. And in that sense the eclipse of the Narrator is a positive development within the story.

But this leaves me with a question. If the Narrator is dominated by social patterns, does this mean that all the things he says within ZMM – such as the comments about individual worth – are compromised? This would seem truly bizarre, in that the Narrator is clearly operating intellectually throughout the book (he is manipulating symbols). And just as clearly the Narrator is analysing society (think of overlooking the freeway and describing the expressions on the faces of drivers). So….?

I would tie this in with two elements, one relating to the story in ZMM, and one relating to metaphysics. In ZMM the Narrator chooses not to go up the mountain; that is, he chooses not to track to the source of a particular philosophical problem, presumably from fear that Phaedrus would then return. Whereas in Lila, Phaedrus has returned, and is content to ‘climb the mountain’, ie explore metaphysics. So you could say that the relative status of metaphysics has changed between the character of the Narrator in ZMM and the character of Phaedrus in Lila. The Narrator is very pragmatic – if it helps in daily life, it’s fine, otherwise forget it (reminds me of Wittgenstein: “What is the use of studying philosophy if it does not improve your thinking about the important questions of everyday life?”). Whereas Phaedrus is quite clearly not pragmatic, is quite unworldly in fact, and pursues the metaphysical questions with abandon. I can’t imagine the Narrator being quite so socially incompetent with respect to Lila, for example.

The second element relates to the differing status of Socrates, the founding father of metaphysics. In ZMM the Narrator describes his rediscovery of Phaedrus' intellectual explorations. The climax of this movement comes when Phaedrus realises that Socrates is, in fact, one of the bad guys: "Socrates had been one of Phaedrus' childhood heroes and it shocked and angered him to see this dialogue taking place.. Socrates is not using dialectic to understand rhetoric, he is using it to destroy it. Phaedrus' mind races on and on and then on further, seeing now at last a kind of evil thing, an evil deeply entrenched in himself, which pretends to try to understand love and beauty and truth and wisdom but whose real purpose is never to understand them, whose real purpose is always to usurp them and enthrone itself. Dialectic - the usurper. That is what he sees. The parvenu, muscling in on all that is Good and seeking to contain and control it. Evil."

The Narrator then goes on to describe what Plato does with regard to arete (excellence, aka individual worth): "Why destroy arete? And no sooner had he asked the question than the answer came to him. Plato hadn't tried to destroy arete. He had encapsulated it; made a permanent, fixed Idea out of it; had converted it to a rigid, immobile Immortal Truth. He made arete the Good, the highest form, the highest Idea of all. It was subordinate only to Truth itself, in a synthesis of all that has gone before."

This is a rejection of traditional metaphysics, the history of western thought. The Narrator is objecting to the raising of dialectic over rhetoric – and it is THIS which underlies the maxim at the beginning of the book, ‘and what is good…’, because the point is that you don’t need a definition of the good in order to know what the good is. (Another echo from Wittgenstein: “It has puzzled me why Socrates is regarded as a great philosopher. Because when Socrates asks for the meaning of a word and people give him examples of how that word is used, he isn't satisfied but wants a unique definition. Now if someone shows me how a word is used and its different meanings, that is just the sort of answer I want.”)

But in Lila, the status of Socrates has been changed. Now he is once more the martyr to the independence of intellectual patterns from the social level, that ‘truth stands independently of social opinion’. Instead of being an instrument of evil, he has become an instrument of a higher evolutionary level, and therefore more moral than those who oppose him.

This is why I think there is a problem with the structure of the MoQ. In ZMM the Narrator quotes Kitto saying: “Arete implies a respect for the wholeness or oneness of life, and a consequent dislike of specialisation. It implies a contempt for efficiency – or rather a much higher idea of efficiency, an efficiency which exists not in one department of life but in life itself”.

Yet Phaedrus – emblem of the intellectual level, fan of Socrates – is clearly a specialist, moreover an intellectual specialist, a master of the art of dialectic.

So what is the problem? The problem is the question that I began with: where does individual worth, arete, fit in with the MoQ? Or is it something to be left behind?

If Phaedrus is the emblem of the higher level, and that higher level is the realm of abstract thought, manipulation of symbols etc, and Socrates is the martyr to the independence of the intellectual level from the social level – is arete the social level? (That would seem to relapse into equating arete with virtue, which the Narrator unpicks as a mistake in ZMM). Yet if arete does not belong to the social level, how does it relate to the intellect? The argument of ZMM is that the intellect (dialectic) is the parvenu, overthrowing rhetoric which is the proper means for teaching Quality, the best, arete. Or is arete the equivalent of DQ, that which can’t be defined? Possibly – but clearly it can be taught, and there were settled ways of teaching it, through rhetoric, which are static patterns. So the question comes – what is the proper classification of those static patterns?

What lies behind all these questions is the notion of philosophical ascent, our pursuit of Quality. It has always seemed to me that the Narrator is a voice of wisdom, and he resembles Wittgenstein in many ways, whom I also revere as a deeply human guide. In terms of what I wish to pursue in my life, it is precisely that pursuit of Quality, the ‘wholeness of life’, which corresponds to arete, or individual worth, or (as I put it in my essay on the eudaimonia which I find to be of high Quality, both static and dynamic. Whereas the intellectualism of Phaedrus, and the construal of the fourth level as represented by that character, I find to be sterile, of little interest.

I suspect that Pirsig himself pursues a broad and rich understanding of arete. This is why he didn’t wish to be identified with Phaedrus, the character in Lila. Yet somehow, the structure of the MoQ has elevated dialectic above arete, and there is this consistent tendency, especially in MD, to glamorise Socrates, and to dismiss the social level as contemptible, which has always seemed profoundly unwise to me.

Is the arete that we are to pursue an intellectual one? No. Is it to be identified with DQ – partly, surely, but does that mean that there are no accumulated static latches that can be absorbed to gain insight and develop our individual worth? If so – what about ZMM itself?

Surely we are to pursue individual worth, precisely the ‘individual integrity, self-reliance and old-fashioned gumption’ that the Narrator praises, the ‘duty towards self’ which is the good translation of dharma, the ‘wholeness of life’ which Kitto refers to. That, it seems to me, is what the highest level of the MoQ should be about. Individual worth is not to be left behind, it is, in fact, right at the heart of all that has Quality. It just seems that the way the MoQ is dominantly interpreted pushes it to one side, in favour of dialectic and that parvenu called Socrates. We must return to the rhetoric of the Sophists.

Anyone who has reached this far and remains interested is referred to my essay called ‘The Eudaimonic MoQ’.

Wittgenstein and Radical Orthodoxy

This was a paper given to the Jubilee Group, 1 February 2000

Good evening everyone. I would first of all like to thank James for his paper, and particularly for letting me have sight of it before tonight, so that I could make sure that we didn’t overlap! I should begin my remarks with some general comments about the radical orthodox. I am, generally speaking, quite sympathetic to what they are trying to do, and I agree with James that they represent a significant step forward for Anglican theology. In particular, Milbank’s Theology and Social Theory is a marvellous, wonderful book, which, although difficult, is essential reading for anyone wanting to understand the present state of theology in this country, and perhaps more widely. The Radical Orthodox are saying something important, and I believe that much of their analysis is correct. I am not qualified to say whether their treatment of, for example, Duns Scotus and the univocity of being is either fair or credible, but their overall story is one that I find compelling.

Now, my talk is going to be both more general and more specific than James’. I am going to concentrate on one aspect of the Radical Orthodoxy project – their understanding of language – and critique it from a Wittgensteinian point of view. I will first outline what Wittgenstein’s understanding of language is; then I will summarise the radical orthodox critique of Wittgenstein, and show the place of that critique in their overall project. Finally I will show how their misunderstanding of Wittgenstein throws into relief a much larger point about radical orthodoxy as a whole, relating to their methodology and their overall approach to theology. So you could say that I am wanting to look at Radical Orthodoxy through both ends of a telescope, leaving out most of the material which lies in plain view. I just hope that I can keep each argument in focus…

The easiest way to get a quick grasp of Wittgenstein’s view of language is to talk about the difference between what he calls surface grammar and depth grammar. Surface grammar is the explicit content and form of a sentence: the division into nouns, verbs, adjectives and so on. It is what we normally think of as grammar. Depth grammar is the function that a sentence plays within the life of the person speaking the sentence. (For the purposes of this paper I am just going to consider the spoken word). In other words, an investigation of the depth grammar of a word will indicate the use that the words have. Think of the expression ‘I need some water’. This seems quite straightforward, but depending upon the context and the emphasis placed upon different words, it could have all sorts of different senses. For example, it could be a straightforward description of thirst, or an expression of the need for an ingredient in making bread, or preparing water colours. So far, so straightforward. But think of something more interesting. Perhaps it is an insult: I am a mechanic, and I am working on fixing a car radiator. My assistant knows that I need some fluid, but passes me some left over orange squash: ‘I need some water’ – where the expression also means: why are you being so stupid? I am sure that given some time, you could think up all sorts of contexts where this one phrase had significantly different meanings. In other words, where the surface grammar of a comment was the same, but the depth grammar was radically different.

Now, for Wittgenstein, the point of this grammatical investigation was that you achieved clarity about any questions that are at issue. If there is a philosophical discussion, then the way to proceed is to conduct a grammatical investigation of the words and concepts that are in dispute. To look at how different words are used in their normal context. For Wittgenstein, philosophical problems are the result of conceptual confusion and to meet these problems what is needed is conceptual clarification. The task of the philosopher is carefully to depict the relationships between different concepts, in other words, to investigate their grammar. The concepts are the ones used in our everyday language, and it is the fact that the concepts are used in our language that gives them their importance. A grammatical investigation in the Wittgensteinian sense is one that looks at how words are used within a lived context. Hence there is the need to investigate the nature of language games and forms of life, which are the usual phrases which you hear when people talk about Wittgenstein. This is a method, and it is with this method that Wittgenstein’s true genius lies. In contrast to almost all philosophers within the Western tradition Wittgenstein was not concerned with providing answers to particular questions. Rather, he wished to gain clarity about the question at issue, in order therefore to dissolve the controversy. He wrote: ‘Philosophy can in no way interfere with the actual use of language; it can in the end only describe it.’

An example might help to make his view clearer. A traditional metaphysical question might be ‘What is time’? We want to know what the word means, and because the word is a noun we look to see what it is that is referred to. Yet there is nothing to which we can point and say ‘That is time’. Thus philosophers are puzzled, and trying to answer questions such as this is the classic job of a philosopher, or more precisely, a metaphysician. For Wittgenstein, though, the question is without sense. Wittgenstein would say, why do we assume that there must be something to which the word refers? Look at how the word is actually used in our language, and see if that enlightens your consideration. Thus, when we look at the contexts in which we use the sentence ‘Time flew by’ they would tend to describe times when we are particularly absorbed in a piece of work, or where we are with friends having an enjoyable evening. The phrase derives its meaning from that context. To then ask, ‘What is time?’ would be absurd. What we must always have at the forefront of our minds is the organic basis of the language that we use. Language has evolved for particular purposes, it has various distinct uses, and there is no necessity that there is a clear and logical basis for it. One of Wittgenstein’s best images is to suggest looking at language as like a tool box, with different tools to perform different functions. Why should there be something which all tools have in common? And why are you so concerned to find it? Wittgenstein is very concerned to ease the philosophical mind away from its tendency for abstract theorising, and to focus it on everyday details, to see what language is actually doing in a given situation.

Perhaps it is now time to examine what the philosophers of the radical orthodox make of all this. Conor Cunningham’s critique can be quite simply summarised in the following way. When Wittgenstein makes the distinction between surface and depth grammar he is developing a neo-Kantian philosophy, where certain intellectual distinctions, for example terms like language game, govern your understanding of the world. In Cunningham’s words, “What Wittgenstein does in his later works is to provide what could be called an ‘ad hoc transcendentalism’.” Wittgenstein, therefore, has an unstated theory of meaning. That theory of meaning is not one that takes account of God – it is not therefore a theology – and as such it is open to the radical orthodox critique that any account of reality which excludes God is nihilistic.

Needless to say, I think this understanding of Wittgenstein is deeply flawed, and misses the very point which Wittgenstein is trying to make. Firstly, Cunningham shows no evidence of having absorbed what Wittgenstein’s method is, for his attack on Wittgenstein is concerned purely with its suggested status as a philosophical system – note, a system, not a method. Secondly, given the amount of academic effort that has gone into understanding and explaining Wittgenstein’s point of view, you would expect some engagement with the arguments that Wittgenstein makes, or that some of the major interpreters make. Perhaps you might expect some alternative conception of how examples like my one with water could be construed. Instead we have an argument, based primarily on two secondary sources, which conveniently places Wittgenstein into the secular philosophical context which radical orthodoxy as a whole wishes to criticise. My claim is that Wittgenstein won’t fit into that context. Wittgenstein is not advancing a theory, he is teaching a method.

Now, my purpose here, as I’m sure you will be relieved to discover, is not to argue through the detail of whether Cunningham’s paper is right or wrong about Wittgenstein. What I would like to do is examine why the radical orthodox want to put Wittgenstein into an intellectual box, to place him as a ‘neo-Kantian’ and so on. The radical orthodox position is that theology evacuates metaphysics, that is, it completely absorbs metaphysics – philosophical speculation about existence – within the subject matter of theology. Milbank writes: “…the domain of metaphysics is not simply subordinate to, but completely evacuated by theology, for metaphysics refers its subject matter – ‘Being’ – wholesale to a first principle, God, which is the subject of another, higher, science, namely God’s own, only accessible to us via revelation.”

Two things are problematic here, from a Wittgensteinian point of view. Firstly, on Wittgenstein’s view metaphysics is a type of pathology. It is an intellectual game with language that satisfies a desire for the infinite, the illusion being that if we can fathom the limits of the world then we can see beyond them. If Wittgenstein’s view of language is correct then large parts of the Western intellectual tradition will fall into disuse. Any account of the world, from Plato’s theory of the forms onward, is, at best, a form of intellectual poetry – Wittgenstein once called them the noblest products of the human mind. But however wonderful metaphysical speculation might be, if Wittgenstein is correct, they are always ultimately nonsense.

Is there an overlap here? For the radical orthodox also dislike metaphysics. In fact, the two positions are as far apart as it is possible to be. For the radical orthodox metaphysics is illegitimate because it doesn’t talk about God. If it does, then it is theology, and that’s OK, because it can therefore be liturgically consummated, as Catherine Pickstock describes. Her project for the liturgical consummation of philosophy only makes sense if both philosophy and theology are operating on parallel lines. For the radical orthodox, theology and metaphysics are therefore the same sort of thing philosophically. But as such, for anyone who understands language in the way that Wittgenstein indicates, they are equally nonsense.

So am I arguing that Wittgenstein is claiming that all theology is nonsense? No, not really. His position is rather more subtle than that (and it is all this subtlety that Cunningham misses). For Wittgenstein it is always action which is primary - ‘In the beginning was the deed’ - and our language gains its sense from being embodied in certain practices. Consider the following passage: ‘Christianity is not a doctrine, not, I mean, a theory about what has happened and will happen to the human soul, but a description of something that actually takes place in human life. For ‘consciousness of sin’ is a real event and so are despair and salvation through faith. Those who speak of such things … are simply describing what has happened to them, whatever gloss anyone may want to put on it.’ Or consider this passage ‘I believe that one of the things Christianity says is that sound doctrines are all useless, that you have to change your life (or the direction of your life)...the point is that a sound doctrine need not take hold of you, you can follow it as you would a doctor’s prescription. But here you need something to move you and turn you in a new direction’; and finally ‘A theology which insists on the use of certain particular words and phrases, and outlaws others, does not make anything clearer...It gesticulates with words, as one might say, because it wants to say something and does not know how to express it. Practice gives the words their sense.’

What Wittgenstein is trying to do is to get us out of our heads, and back into our bodies. His position is therefore much more incarnational than the radical orthodox, paradoxically enough. As I understand it, religious language makes sense only within the context of the religious life as a whole. The life of worship, repentance and changing of life. The religious language, with associated teaching and pictures, is primary. Theology and doctrinal development is a secondary characteristic, which relates to the practise of religion rather in the same way that literary criticism relates to the writing of literature. And of course, in the history of our religion, that makes sense. The basic motifs of the faith were present after the resurrection, and it took some 300 years for the intellectual account of those motifs to catch up.

To try and summarise the difference as I see it, then, I would say that Wittgenstein is aware that some of the most important things about life cannot be put into words, that there is a very important element of mysticism (in the sense of ineffable meaning) in his viewpoint. That side of life, which for Wittgenstein included religion, aesthetics and ethics, does not and cannot proceed from an intellectual basis. It’s much more important than that. However, that element of mysticism, of real religious experience, is what is missing in the radical orthodox. For the radical orthodox the intellectual battle is the heart of things. The primary channel for accessing God is through the intellect; if your understanding is correct, then you will see God. And in putting across this point of view the radical orthodox are aggressively academic, in ways that James has described. This, ultimately, is why they misconstrue Wittgenstein – Wittgenstein does not place the intellect at the centre of what it means to be human, and in a very real sense that is the hallmark of his approach – and to then try and understand him through the lens of intellectual primacy is to be led into the sort of mistakes that Cunningham makes.

Yet the academic method as presently practised in this country, the whole critical apparatus of citation and footnotes and the slow building up of evidence and argument, is the epitome of intellectual primacy, or secular reason as Milbank describes it. It is based upon a distancing of the writer from the concerns being discussed. It is, ultimately, an abstraction. To put it in more classical terms, the academic method is scientia, reason. Whereas faith is about sapientia, wisdom. The two are different, and theology is first and most importantly about the latter. It is something of an irony that the radical orthodox are proclaiming the end of secular reason while still being subservient to its forms.

Music in worship

Another Westcott post. This one doesn't need to change though :)

In 1931 Ludwig Wittgenstein went with his friend Con Drury to sit in the Chapel of Westcott House where Drury had begun training for the priesthood. Drury recalls:
‘We then went and sat for a while in the college chapel. There was no organ in the chapel but instead a piano in the loft. While we were sitting in silence, someone else came in and started to play the piano. Wittgenstein jumped up at once and hurried out. I followed. [He exclaimed] ‘Blasphemy! A piano and the cross. Only an organ should be allowed in a church!’
One hesitates to consider what Wittgenstein would have made of a present day Federation Eucharist. More seriously however, this vignette points up the difficulties that are involved in any attempt to bring together music and the sacred. It is an arena in which strong feelings can be aroused and consequently it is an arena in which strong theology is required.

It would seem as if music has always been associated with worship. We read in Psalm 71: ‘I will also praise thee with the harp for the faithfulness, O my God; I will sing praises to thee with the lyre, O Holy One of Israel. My lips will shout for joy, when I sing praises to thee’ and this brings out the close association between the act of making music and the act of giving praise to God. We know from Acts that when Paul and Silas were imprisoned at Philippi they ‘were praying and singing hymns to God’ which presumably acted to help them sustain their faith. Moving forward we can consider the development of plainchant, which came about in order to help the faithful hear the words of the liturgy which became acoustically confused in large spaces if they were not sung. We then of course have the stunning achievements of Bach’s Mass in B Minor, or Handel’s Messiah, which give exquisite expression to the perspective of faith. In our own time on any particular Sunday we could hear in different churches anything from Victorian hymns to Graham Kendrick choruses to the ambient beat associated with alternative worship. Clearly in our contemporary culture there is a plethora of musical forms from which to choose. The real concern is to establish the grounds which should guide our choice.

The first point to be made is that music is something that reaches very deeply within us as human beings. We can quite literally be moved to tears by a particular melody, or alternatively we can be motivated to achieve victory in battle – think of the use to which martial music has been put, and the development of particular instruments, such as the bagpipes, for this purpose. Of course, we have recently had the striking example of the music used in Diana’s funeral, both Elton John and John Tavener, which served to express some of the powerful feelings which had arisen following her death. Music has developed its own language which can be used to express a vast emotional vocabulary. It is difficult to offer a completely objective and detached analysis of the role of music in worship given this close link with our feeling nature, and this is a theme to which I will return.

As well as this level of emotional response to music there is clearly an intellectual dimension to consider. For example, Bach wrote his forty eight Preludes and Fugues for the Organ in order to ensure that all the musical keys were used, each one having a slightly different character (as a church organist himself doubtless there was also the practical consideration of having more interesting music to play). The overused phrase ‘the harmony of the spheres’ could perhaps be used with some effect here, because the intellectual appreciation of music can become an aesthetic appreciation which can give rise to contemplation of the divine harmony underlying the musical one.

A further level to consider in music is the meditative which has a very popular contemporary form in Taizé chanting. Silence can also be a form of music, and silence can take very different forms according to the musical and liturgical context within which it is placed. The rhythmic and repetitive forms of Gregorian plain chant or Taizé can inculcate a quiet and restful spirit, which has obvious spiritual benefit. As well as these more individual aspects of musical appreciation there is the crucial dimension of community. In singing together, or in making music together, a particular group fosters its corporate identity and songs can develop a sense of fellowship. What we have then is a medium which has profound links to our humanity, in all its aspects: emotional, intellectual, spiritual. It is unsurprising that music has always been part of worship in any community.

This leads to a consideration of ways in which music can be used within a community. This has a number of aspects:
  • Firstly, as mentioned above with regard to the development of plainsong, the use of music in worship can allow the ‘content’ of a service to be more effectively absorbed. Within a large church music can allow words to be heard clearly, and it can be used to give dramatic colouring to a service. For example, in a sung Eucharist the fact that there is a sung Alleluia to accompany a gospel procession can enhance the sense that this reading needs to be accepted in a different way to the previous ones, as it is in this context that one encounters the Word of God.
  • Following on from this there is the way in which music can encourage a greater retention of, for example, the poetry of a great hymn. I remember once reading about the comfort that a dying man gained from being able to recollect the hymns that were sung in his school when he was a child, and to be able to gain a measure of insight from the theology that was contained in them. Another example may be the use of Christmas carols which are in many instances the principal exposure to church music. It is not an accident that Christmas services are more well attended when one considers the facility and beauty of these hymns. Another aspect of this is that singing can be used to great effect in teaching. It is likely that many of the great books of the Bible were originally preserved in this way as the memory is enhanced by the use of a melodic rhythm.
  • A more important use of music, of course, is to enable the expression of the sense of worship within a community. Music provides a way of saying things that cannot be said in words. To refer to Wittgenstein once more, he once said that ‘It has been impossible in my book to say one word of all that music has meant to me in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?’. Music is not simply a means of expressing verbal forms with a greater sense of drama and occasion. It allows for a wider expression of what is within us. There are certain occasions when an emotion can be too deeply held to be expressed in a normal fashion and in these circumstances only music can suffice, Diana’s funeral might be one example. In a very important way music can be seen as a way of enlarging the soul, for it allows the expression of something vital. Foremost amongst this is the desire to praise God, for hereit is perhaps easier to understand how after a time words fail and music must take over. Music should not be considered just for praise however, for as we can see in the Psalms, which represent our oldest hymn book, all of our emotional response needs to be included. In a requiem mass for example, whilst there is of course the need to place everything within the sacred context, there is an overwhelming need to articulate the grief associated with such an event. Similarly, at an infant baptism or a wedding, there would be a need to articulate a sense of joy. Music can allow this to happen. What is important is that the music allow the congregation to speak directly to God, and express what is within their hearts.
However, it is clear that there are dangers involved, and it is to those that I will now turn. There are at least three potential pitfalls that need to be avoided in any use of music in a liturgical context. Clearly a service of worship (or an occasional office) needs to be distinguished from a musical performance, where the focus is on the musical quality of what is done, rather than the liturgical efficacy. In our decadent Anglican culture the receding tide of faith has left the high peaks of our past musical achievement as cultural relics operating in splendid isolation from the faith which gave them sense. The performance of Evensong in King’s College Chapel, to an audience of tourists eager to gain an experience of something quintessentially English, is not necessarily an act of faith. The commercial development of such performances, which reduce this liturgy to a packaged product, is also not something which develops a sense of the sacred. In contrast to this there is the opposite failing of having poor quality music in a liturgical setting. Instead of having an isolated high achievement there is the clinging to the forms of a triumphal church in a context which requires a penitent church. For example to attempt a sung Eucharist where there is a congregation numbering in the low teens, most of whom have no musical training, is to place a blind obeisance to tradition above a pastorally and liturgically sensitive expression of faith. In such a context the echo of a dead faith drowns out the expression of a living one.

My final point relates to a sensitivity to modern cultural forms. In our contemporary state of media saturation most people are highly musically aware, even if that awareness is not an explicit one. By this I mean that the exposure to music of both high quality and diversity has enlarged the musical vocabulary of most people. If we accept that music allows the expression of emotion then I would assert that in their daily life people are offered a very highly developed ability to express themselves. In terms of articulating grief joy, anger or any of a myriad other emotions our present culture allows a very effective and democratic participation. If a person is feeling in a particular way then they can play a particular form of music which will allow them to engage and express those emotions. This development of a broad popular culture has meant that the expectations of a congregation are now significantly different to what they have been in the past, and the mode of musical expression, the musical vocabulary, is now much larger. In such a context it is appropriate to use that vocabulary in a liturgically effective way and not simply attempt to ape such forms in a fatally misguided attempt to become ‘relevant’. The key point here, of course, is what is meant by ‘liturgically effective’ because it is not clear that the ability to express a sense of reverence is equally available.

So far my discussion has been conducted at a very general level, indeed it could be characterised as simply an articulation of theological common sense. I believe, however, that there is a more significant issue with regard to music that needs to be taken account of by our Church, and that relates to the prophetic task of the Church within our present culture. As Walter Brueggemann put it in his text ‘The Prophetic Imagination’ :

‘When the new king rules it is new song time. It has always been new song time when the new king comes and there is no more calling of the skilled mourners who know how to cry on call. The funeral is ended for now it is festival time. It is time for the children and for all who can sing new songs and discern new situations. The old songs had to be sung in the presence of mockers and they were an embarrassment because they spoke about all that had failed. But new song time is a way to sing a new social reality as the freedom songs stood behind every freedom act. The energy comes from the song that will sing Yahweh to his throne and Babylon to her grave. As Abraham Heschel has seen, only people in covenant can sing. New song time is when a new covenant that becomes the beginning for another way of reality is made.’

I believe that in our present context, the church in its prophetic ministry is not simply called to use music in particular ways to express the sense of a worshipping community. It is called to affirm the importance of music as being itself a sign of the Kingdom, which subverts the secular mentality by its very existence. This point will need a little further explanation (!).

We live in a society and culture that is conditioned by a deep division between what is rational (and therefore affirmed by our culture) and what is emotional (and therefore denied by our culture). It would not be appropriate in this essay to explore the way in which this division has wounded our culture and effected a deeply dehumanising and irreligious economic and social reality upon us . My point is this: the role of music in worship needs to be one that affirms and upholds the emotional elements within us, and not just the rational. This leads to the following considerations:
  • In worship we affirm our relatedness to God. This is something that is inescapably emotional (and as such this is a subversive act within our present culture). The music that we employ in order to do this more effectively is such that can (done properly) deepen and integrate this emotional reality into our wider life. This can strengthen the faithful to resist the blandishments of what Brueggemann calls the ‘royal consciousness’;
  • The key to this royal consciousness, which Brueggemann picks out, is that it denies the reality of suffering, of pathos. The role of any prophetic community is therefore to cut through the numbness that is consequent on the rational/emotional division and to allow an articulation of the grief felt by the excluded. This is something that can best be done in a musical form. The use of music allows a more fully developed expression of the emotional circumstances of the community.
  • Consequently, the form of music that is needed by this prophetic community is not one that is primarily amenable to an intellectual or aesthetic appreciation. It is one that will connect with the vitality and feeling nature of the dispossessed, and can articulate their emotional response. The important thing is not necessarily to have music that will satisfy aesthetically so much as to have a musical form that will allow the emotional side an outlet. In this context a Dionysian rite may be more Christian than a choral Evensong.
A consideration of the role of music in worship, therefore, must not only consider the aesthetics and liturgical appropriateness of musical forms. With respect to that the way forward is fairly clear and uncontroversial. What is more important is that the role of music as a prophetic weapon against secular worldliness needs to be acknowledged and embraced. The Devil must not be allowed to have all the best tunes.

Has Spirituality changed since Newton?

This is something I wrote whilst training at Westcott, posted for historical
interest - see also my comments at the end, in case you think I'm losing my

In this essay I shall be arguing that spirituality has indeed changed since the time of Newton and that, whilst spirituality is an inherently dynamic
activity, the changes involved are such as to question the very viability of Christian spirituality. I will begin by outlining the understanding of
spirituality that I will be using in this paper and examining the impact that Newton's thought had. I will then broaden the scope of my inquiry to talk about the wider changes inaugurated by the scientific revolution (of which Newton is the prime representative), before considering the possibility of a Christian spirituality today. My conclusion will be that a Christian spirituality is possible, but that it is one which has significant differences from its precursors within the tradition.

The definition of spirituality that I will be using is one given by Philip Sheldrake in his Spirituality and Theology: 'Spirituality is the whole of human
life viewed in terms of a conscious relationship with God, in Jesus Christ, through the indwelling of the Spirit and within the community of believers' .
Whilst spirituality is something that is difficult to pin down, this definition puts the relationship with God in Christ at the centre of spirituality for the
Christian, and that concern with relationship will be my main consideration here.

In early Christian thought the relationship of the believer to God had the following characteristics . Firstly it was (inevitably) highly Christocentric in focus; secondly it was eschatological, in that believers felt that they were living in the end times; thirdly it was ascetical, in that it concentrated on a development of the virtues; fourthly it was liturgical in that the spirituality was embodied, above all in the Eucharist; and finally it was a communal
activity, in that it was not a way of life that could be experienced by an individual on their own, but only by sharing a common life with others. By the time of the Reformation period this form had undergone massive development in different directions, becoming part of the common cultural fabric of each nation in the West: Christendom. With the wars of religion, however, Christendom began to collapse, and this was the milieu into which Newton was born in 1642.

Isaac Newton was quite possibly the greatest scientist ever to have lived, even though some two-thirds of his writings were not on scientific topics. He was born in Lincolnshire and studied in Cambridge where he was appointed the Lucasian professor of mathematics in 1669. His magnum opus, the Principia Mathematica was published in 1687, and has been described by Stephen Hawking as 'probably the most important single work to have been published in the natural sciences'. Newton died in 1727. He was responsible for four major developments in our understanding of the natural world. Firstly in optics, he showed that white light could be split into the different parts of the spectrum; secondly he invented the calculus (independently of Liebniz) which he used to investigate nature through mathematical analysis; thirdly he proposed three laws of motion to account for the movement of objects in space; and finally he developed his theory of gravitation which offered a universal account of the way in which matter interacts.

Newton was recognised as a genius within his lifetime, and his influence was widespread; that influence had a malign effect upon Christian spirituality
in three main ways:
a) Firstly in Newton's world-view there is absolute space and absolute time within which the laws of physics operate. As Angela Tilby has described it, 'Space and Time now had an absolute status which were linked to God. They provided the boundaries to the universe and ensure its rational character.' Although there was an unambiguous role for God within the Newtonian system, that God was of a very distinct character, and the consequences for religious life have been significant. As spirituality is concerned primarily with the relationship between believer and God the change in the understanding of God that followed from Newton's theories had definite spiritual consequences. The role of God within the Newtonian system was primarily to be that of a creator of a system; and that system, whilst it may sometimes need adjustments, could essentially be left to develop on its own. This conception led to the development of deism, the idea that God had created the world but was no longer directly involved in it, and is a direct consequence of Newton's own Unitarian beliefs.

b) Secondly, the mathematisation of our understanding of the world, particularly through the laws of motion and gravitation, meant that the universe was understood in a predominantly mechanical fashion. This had the consequence of undermining belief in human freedom, for which there was no room within the system: the universe was both wholly material (which undermined belief in the soul, amongst other things) and deterministic. This view also had the corollary of emphasising the role of law in human life, which ultimately led to the great nineteenth century conflicts between science and religion .

c) Finally, a particular effect of this conception was to move the understanding of miracles even further away from the 'signs' of, for example, John's gospel, towards an 'intervention' account, ie that God intervenes within the world to change the course of events. These developments worked to undermine the central Christian claim concerning Jesus' divinity, and, in the long run, were significant factors in the rise of atheism.
However, it would be wrong to lay the responsibility for the rise of atheism (and the undermining of Christian spirituality) entirely at Newton's feet. Newton, whilst undoubtedly a genius, was a product of his time, and there were deeper changes going on than can be brought out by the focus on this one man. If we therefore take Newton to be the symbol of an age, and ask whether spirituality has changed since that time, then we can begin to see the much more important developments that have happened.

Newton's mathematisation of the world, which he moved forward massively with his development and use of the calculus, was something that was first developed by Descartes . Indeed, Book 2 of Newton's Principia was devoted to a detailed examination of Descartes' own theories of planetary motion. This method stems from Descartes own use of formal analysis in the fields of geometry, meteorology and optics, and was a part of the Cartesian search for certainty in the scholastic category of scientia , which has become modern science. This search for certainty was itself religiously motivated, in that Descartes was horrified by the violence of the thirty years war and wished to establish a way of obtaining knowledge that was open to independent justification . While Newton took forward the application of Cartesian method in the scientific sphere, its application in the sphere of religious belief was taken forward by John Locke who argued that the beliefs that we can hold should be those which can be rationally demonstrated, either by appeal to self-evident first principles, or to empirical evidence. Beliefs must, in either case, be shown to have a rational foundation. A major consequence of this development was the rejection of authority in matters of religious belief, which undermined both the institutions of the church and most visibly the ancien régime in France. It also led directly to the emergence of fundamentalism, in both science and religion.

Whilst the above is a very rapid survey of the changes that took place in Newton's time it is clear that the consequences for spirituality are very great. I would like to pick out two things in particular. The first is the rejection of authority, and the consequent autonomy of individual opinion. The second is the confidence in human reason as a means to understand the world, with the various consequences that have gone with it. These two elements together can be looked at as characteristic of the scientific mentality, of which Newton was a prime example, and it is this scientific spirit that has had the greatest impact on spirituality. I wish to look at three areas: first, the way our view of the world has been changed, secondly, the way in which traditional forms of Christianity have been undermined, and thirdly the way in which contemporary culture has taken over many of the forms of religious practice.

A different world
It would not be an exaggeration to say that we live in a different world to that of the first Christians. The Ancient view of the universe had the earth at the centre of a Ptolemaic system, with hell beneath the earth and the heavens above. In this environment it made sense, for example, to speak of Jesus rising into heaven or descending into hell. More importantly, there was no sense of radical division between the world and God: God was continually active within the world and this was not something that was seen as a violation, it was simply the way that things were. This understanding is deeply foreign to our post-scientific world view. To begin with, the earth is no longer seen as the centre of the universe. It is seen instead as being a predominantly unremarkable satellite of an average star in the corner of one galaxy in the midst of myriad more. Our sense of the sheer scale of space has changed drastically. In addition, our sense of time has changed. Instead of the earth having existed for some few thousand years, starting from a divine creation, and of which there are records within the Bible, instead the Earth has existed for some four billion years, and the universe itself for some 15 billion years. What is more, not only has the earth existed for this length of time, but there has been life on earth, of the most exotic kinds, for many millions of years, and this life has been punctuated periodically by mass extinctions. The fact that there exists the species homo sapiens is a massive accident (albeit one that, given the scale of the universe, might be described as inevitable). Beyond even this, our geographical and archeological investigations have shown that the Christian religion is highly culturally conditioned, and the advent of historical criticism of the Biblical texts has shown the evolution of belief in Jesus as the Christ. In sum, the traditional Christian claims concerning the uniqueness, centrality and divinity of Jesus have been deconstructed. In the form that they have existed, from c.100AD through to c.1750 AD, they are no longer tenable. In what way can Christian spirituality persist today?

The previous paragraph has described the impact of the scientific mentality on what could be called the 'scaffolding' of Christian belief. The answer to the question above might therefore be one that distinguishes the form of Christian belief from the content. In other words, rather as contemporary non-realists do, one might argue that beliefs about the physical universe, or the time that life has existed on earth, are secondary to the practice of faith. The Christian life consists in a certain way of living, a certain way of relating to God which is then embodied in particular practices. While our understanding of God will change as the result of these developments the essence of the faith can be maintained. This answer is open to a number of objections, both in terms of its underestimation of the impact that these developments have, and also its assumption that Christian faith can be 'privatised' in this way, but most problematically of all, it ignores the way in which the internal practise of faith has been radically challenged by the scientific mentality, through the development of, in particular, modern medicine and psychology.

Central to the traditional sense of Christian spirituality are the notions of sin, grace and salvation, and implicit within these is the notion of guilt. The impact of the practices of psychotherapy (and also Nietszche) have completely changed our understanding of these personal experiences, such that this new understanding of sin and guilt 'entails a new view of the God who judges and punishes, the God who saves and has mercy, the God from whom we beg pity and pardon, and whose goodness and grace we sing'. The overwhelming sense of personal inadequacy that was experienced by, for example, Luther is not something that would be experienced in the same way today. Whilst it may be true, as Jung implied, that ultimately all psychotherapeutic problems are resolved by spiritual means, it is also the case that the overwhelming sense of personal worthlessness that Luther worked through would now be first considered a case for therapy and then possibly psychiatric intervention. (This is not to say that this practice is correct, only that this is the way in which these problems are viewed). In a similar fashion our attitudes to the closest and most typically human experiences, for example of our sexual life or the fact of our eventual death have changed completely in the light of the scientific mentality. Whereas it might be claimed that this is a distorted expression of Christianity, in practice the dominant impression of Christian thought has been that sexuality is inferior to celibacy, and the monastic life was held as the ideal. This Stoic conception is now rightly held to be pathological. In a similar fashion, the understanding of death has been altered out of recognition by the impact of modern medicine and the increase in longevity that it has brought about (at least in the rich countries of the West). Whereas it used to be a universal experience that childbirth was inherently fraught with risk, such that the risk of death for the infant in the first five years of life was roughly 50%. As Pohier writes: 'Because it primarily affected children and young adults, death necessarily seemed to be an accident, a brutal, unjust and unnatural break with life.' Whereas now, the death of a child or young person is experienced as something which is in principle avoidable, and such deaths lead to the reaction that something has gone wrong. Furthermore, as more people live to the 'natural' end of their lives, the fact of death itself is now seen as an inevitable part of the human life cycle, one that is to be welcomed in its proper place. Thanks to evolutionary studies we now understand that our form of life would itself not be possible without death.

More than anything else, however, the practice of prayer, particularly intercessionary prayer, within contemporary Christianity is under siege. Whereas it may once have made sense in both physical and moral terms to pray for a particular event to happen, it is no longer morally credible that there is a particular divine response to prayer that has an effect other than on the person praying. Or, to put it another way, an interventionist theodicy is not possible after Auschwitz. As Ivan Karamazov puts it, 'What good can hell do if they have already been tortured to death?…We cannot afford to pay so much for admission'.

The undermining of the Christian world view
We can see, therefore, that the impact of the scientific mentality is profound, both in terms of the framework of beliefs and the way in which our lives are experienced. I would like to develop this point by looking at particular elements of Christian spirituality, in three of the five areas outlined at the beginning of this essay:
  1. The understanding of Jesus: if we look at the traditional understanding of Jesus then it becomes clear that this perception has irrevocably broken down. What John Robinson called the 'traditional orthodox supernaturalism', which saw Jesus as a divine emissary, is no longer acceptable, as much on theological grounds as on an acceptance of scientific developments . To claim that Jesus was the Son of God begs many more questions than it answers - what do you mean by God? What do you mean by Son of God? Is it the same as what Jesus meant? (And did he in fact use the term?) Whilst a cogent case may be made for seeing Jesus as divine the way that this is understood is a significant step from, eg, 'He took our flesh and our flesh became God, since it is united with God and forms a single entity with him…Here below he is without a father; on high he is without a mother' . Beyond this, the understanding of Jesus' resurrection changes with our understanding of death: in what way does death need to be conquered if it is seen as a necessary and beneficial element of creation? As Pohier points out, throughout the history of Christianity, belief in the resurrection has often functioned to suppress a pathological fear of death. If nothing else, the popular forms of devotion to Jesus are incompatible with a contemporary Western cast of mind.
  2. It is indisputable that early Christianity was formed within an eschatological framework that accepted an imminent end to the world. Whilst the crisis of this non-event was surmounted as Christianity developed, its presence still erupts occasionally with outbreaks of millenarianism, and in the practices of cults such as Jehovah's Witnesses. Furthermore, it is clear that this had a profound effect on Christian teaching (eg Paul on marriage) which cannot simply be removed without consequence from the practice of the faith. Although the expectation of an imminent end to the world has been 'indefinitely postponed' the greater awareness we have of geological time makes the notion of a God that would act in such a way massively problematic, and this also has consequences for Christian teaching. If we don't expect God to act in this way with us, does this give us greater freedom within the world? What becomes of the notion of judgment? And even if such a God did act in this way, is it a conception of God that we can love (ie find in any way morally admirable)?
  3. As hinted at above, the practice of early Christianity focused on living in a particular way, particularly given an eschatological horizon, but even once this had been surpassed the dominant conception of Christian virtue (ascetical practices) requires overhaul. If we focus on the monastic vows (poverty, chastity and obedience) which were held to be exemplary for the Christian, then each can now be broken down. In a world where each purchase has direct economic and political consequences the vow of poverty is a refusal to be engaged in the struggles of the world (one might even describe it as anti-incarnational) and is a letting go of individual responsibility. This might be thought a good thing for the spiritual development of the individual (and certainly possessive materialism needs to be countered) but to leave the world to the big battalions of the military-industrial complexes and to leave the broad mass of humanity embedded in structural sin is not a straightforwardly positive act. Questions of sexuality were treated earlier, suffice to say that whilst a true calling to celibacy can be a genuine gift from God, the idea that we are called to renounce our sexuality (with the historical consequence that it becomes a source of shame) in the name of Christ is a pathology (and is also un-Biblical). Finally, the question of obedience is again not something that can simply be embraced as virtuous. Whilst it is true that the vow of obedience allows for the exercise of the individual conscience, while releasing the person concerned from worries about too many worldly matters (and serving to combat the sin of pride), in the aftermath of Nüremberg one must question the mentality that makes this sort of vow desirable. Whilst it can be made to be something that enhances the Christian life this ceding of authority runs counter to the democratic spirit which emphasises individual responsibility: obedience per se is no longer possible as a virtue.
Substitutes for Christianity
According to 'The Independent': 'The real priests of the future are scientists, as they have been since the Industrial Revolution' . Whilst such a comment shows an absurd ignorance of the nature of priesthood it does point up the widespread way in which the clothing of religious truth has been usurped by the scientific establishment. This has gone so far that Paul Davies is able to claim that 'In my opinion science offers a surer path to God than religion'. According to Richard Dawkins, 'Intelligent life on a planet comes of age when it first works out the reason for its own existence…Darwin made it possible for us to give a sensible answer… 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?' . The way in which scientists have begun to usurp the traditional role of the church in terms of being a bearer of transcendent values is something that has been exposed quite well by Mary Midgley. These scientists are attempting to clothe their work with some of the lustre of religious truth, purveying the message that in science it is possible to find salvation. Certainly some of the best of scientific writing does work to satisfy the 'Immortal Longings' that we have as human beings, in that it allows a sense of something beyond our immediate understanding, but when it does so it is operating at the level of metaphysics, not science. Contemporary Christians therefore live in a world in which there is a dominant culture claiming to provide many of the traditional Christian benefits, eg salvation and relationship with the divine.

Another fundamental way in which the culture has changed is in terms of the competition for attention, and the way in which that attention is fixed. For example, in medieval times a high mass would have been radically distinct from normal life: instead of being in cramped conditions, you would be in a place of space and light; instead of being surrounded by foul odours there would be incense; instead of cacophony there would be sacred music. All of this would have enhanced the experience of worship as being a way of connecting with God. In contrast, in the contemporary world, the situation is reversed: in the world there is uplifting architecture, in church you are cramped and cold; in the world there is a variety of entertainment and stimulation of high and developing quality, in a church there is obscure amateurism; in the world there are a thousand sources of inspiration, in the church there are often none; in the world, especially, there is an acceptance and celebration of the body (eg in dancing) whereas the church is a remarkably disembodied experience. The way in which people experience cultural events has changed drastically, and consequently, even if, for example, a eucharistic liturgy faithfully follows the pattern laid down by history, the way in which it is experienced is markedly different. The same words and actions now have a different meaning, for the context is different.

The practical consequence of this for Christian spirituality is that we are returned to a pagan culture, but a pagan culture which is in many ways superior to the spiritual experience of Christianity, and one in which (it is believed that) Christianity has been tried and found wanting. In my concluding remarks I would like to offer a few brief comments about the way in which a viable Christianity can be proclaimed in such an environment.

The possibility of kerygma after Newton
At the heart of Christian spirituality is the relationship between the faithful and a God revealed in Jesus Christ. We have seen that our understanding of all the parties to that relationship has changed: ourselves, our God and the person of Jesus himself. In such a context it is inevitable that the relationship will need to express itself in new forms. It seems to me that there is a possibility of proclaiming the gospel in this new situation (it does, after all, bear many resemblances to the situation that the early church found itself in) but that the proclamation will have to begin by letting go of some cherished elements. The following are some suggested lines of development:
a) Firstly a focus on Jesus as one who reveals the nature of God. This should not be expressed in the terms conditioned by Jewish history and Greek metaphysics, ie to claim that Jesus is the Son of God, as that situates the kerygma in an abandoned cultural context, but perhaps a re-interpretation of Logos theology, concentrating on Jesus as the purpose of God revealed in human form, would be more easily digestible today.

b) Secondly, the liturgical practice of the Eucharist, in which we meet the character of Jesus and absorb his teaching, is essential, once we can rid it of the metaphysical and cultic baggage that has accrued to it in the last thousand years .

c) Thirdly, the autonomy of modern human culture, and the extent of control possible to it, needs to be recognised and affirmed theologically (and therefore given direction). Whilst there is still scope for a doctrine of divine judgment we do not live in an environment where it makes sense (either theologically or scientifically) to expect divine action to resolve our problems. I think that this is a corollary of both the 'dominion' bestowed in Genesis 1 and also our adoption as children of God (see Romans 8 and 1 John).

d) Finally, the concentration on orthodoxy (radical or otherwise), so prevalent within Christianity thanks to (amongst other things) the nature of the papacy and the rise of evangelical fundamentalism, needs to be countered by a lived emphasis upon the nature of Christianity as a way of life, which has certain results. As Wittgenstein put it: 'Christianity is not a doctrine, not, I mean, a theory about what has happened and will happen to the human soul, but a description of something that actually takes place in human life. For 'consciousness of sin' is a real event and so are despair and salvation through faith. Those who speak of such things (Bunyan for instance) are simply describing what has happened to them, whatever gloss anyone may want to put on it.'
In this essay I have tried to make as strong a case as possible for the changes that have taken place since Newton, and indicate the effect that they have had on spirituality. Primarily that effect has been a corrosive one - the form and content of Christian faith have been changed irrevocably by the scientific revolution. However, there is a clear distinction between the historical practice of Christian faith and the claims of the Christian gospel, and I am confident that the creation still waits with eager longing for the glorious liberty of the children of god.

Bibliography of works cited
Jordan Aumann, Christian Spirituality in the Catholic Tradition, Ignatius Press, 1985
Olivier Clément, The Roots of Christian Mysticism, New City, 1993
Paul Davies, God and the New Physics, Penguin, 1990
Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, 2nd Ed, OUP 1989
Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, Penguin Classics, 1958
Stephen Jay Gould, Wonderful Life, Penguin, 1989
Mary Midgley, Science as Salvation, Routledge, 1992
Catherine Pickstock, After Writing, Blackwell, 1998
Jaques Pohier, God in Fragments, SCM, 1985
John Robinson, Honest to God, SCM, 1963
Philip Sheldrake, Spirituality and Theology, Darton, Longman and Todd, 1998
Angela Tilby, Science and the Soul, SPCK, 1992
Stephen Toulmin, Cosmopolis, University of Chicago Press, 1990
Rowan Williams, The Wound of Knowledge, Darton Longman and Todd, 1979
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, Blackwell, 1980
Nicholas Wolterstorff, John Locke and the Ethics of Belief, Cambridge University Press, 1996


There is a lot in this essay that I would now renounce - it is striking a) how far I have come, and b) how the depression I was experiencing at the time (January 1999) comes through in what I wrote (maybe only I can hear it). I was very influenced by Jacques Pohier, whom I read then - and eventually moved away from. What now comes to mind is how trapped in a Modernist frame of reference I was - particularly with regard to eschatology and the supernatural. Another post on that to follow shortly.

Johnny Cash

I've been exploring Johnny Cash a lot over the last year, since being given American Recordings 1-4 by a mate (thanks Al). In the last few weeks though, I've watched the film, read his autobiography and Dave Urbanski's 'The Man Comes Around' - and been listening to American Recordings 5 & two live albums. So, some various thoughts from all that.

1. That voice!

2. I'm very interested in songs about life, the human voice detailing human experience. I see the singing voice as more basic than the spoken voice, the latter being derived (and in some ways diminished) from the former. The folk song tradition - of which Johnny Cash is an inheritor - is something I'd like to explore.

3. Singing as such is on my mind a lot at the moment (see here). I might even start taking lessons to play the guitar.

4. Picking cotton - that is what oil has saved us from. Peak Oil looks even grimmer on reading about the life he grew up with.

5. The film was good, but I wanted it to explore more about his religious faith, which was only really hinted at. The Urbanski book goes a little way to meeting that need, but it is the autobiography that says much more. I am very intrigued about a) his closeness with Billy Graham, and b) the film that he made about Jesus.

6. I'm also intrigued at the gospel songs he has recorded, which I am probably going to have to obtain somehow. Some of my favourite songs of his are the religious ones (Man Comes Around, Personal Jesus - and yes I know that the latter is a cover version of an Essex band original).

7. "I'm not one of those public personalities who 'can't' go to the movies with everyone else. I walk the streets and shop in the stores and buy my movie tickets at the box office. People don't 'leave me alone'. They recognize me, and when I'm standing in line we talk, and if they want an autograph I give them one. Then we all say 'bye and go watch the movie. Of course, if I'd turned out to be Elvis or Marilyn Monroe, or Michael Jackson or Madonna, I might not want to do things that way. Comparatively speaking, being Johnny Cash isn't that tough a job."